On the Internal Sea

I’m not usually a webcomic reader, but since I was introduced to Mare Internum, it has held my attention. It is deeply satisfying to read an astrobiology-related story that is told so beautifully.

On its surface, Mare Internum is the story of two scientists who suffer a catastrophic accident while investigating a martian cave. Michael Fisher is a pioneering geologist who recently suffered a mysterious breakdown and is being sent back to Earth. Bex, his replacement, is an entomologist who seems to have come to Mars to escape Earth. Little by little, their lives are revealed as interludes in the main story. And the main story… well, mare internum is Latin for “internal sea.”

The story is vividly illustrated. The characters, though not always comprehensible, are likeable. The only rough patch for me has been Chapter 2. I had trouble deciphering some of the art, and the story moved slowly. However, I was reading each page as it was released—since then, I’ve gone back and read the whole chapter, and it flows better. And I’ll grant that an extraterrestrial environment is inherently difficult to decipher.

I can’t speak for all astrobiologists (and I’m not technically an astrobiologist, ha), but this is a treat. Great art and action are paired with references to brines, botryoids, chemoclines, and a host of other ideas we hold dear. One of my favorite pages features a lovely rendering of Mars and opens the conversation up to panspermia—the concept that microbial life can travel from one planet to “seed” another. (Note that if you click the panspermia link, spoilers will happen!)

I very much want to see where this comic goes. If you like it, you might also want to read the author’s longer-running webcomic The Meek.

Speaking of the author, if you’re at the Emerald City Comicon this weekend, you can meet Der-shing Helmer in person. Lucky!

Those gamma rays!

I have edited many science articles. And to this day, whenever I read about gamma radiation, I think of the Hulk. For example,

Science Article: “Likewise, no significant loss of photosynthetic activity was observed after exposure to γ rays at 6 kGy—the lowest dose applied for this type of radiation.”

Me (in awe): “That’s what got Bruce Banner! Those gamma rays!”

(Also, note use of the Greek letter in the sentence above, in accord with ACS Style Guide rules.)

Call for Papers: Election Recounts and Audits

Hi, friends. I don’t know if any lawyers or political scientists ever stumble across this old, quiet blog, but anyhow the Election Law Journal has put out a call for papers on election recounts and audits. The deadline for submission is March 15. For general information about ELJ, go here.

Europa: Gettin’ it done

The Astrobiology Primer v2.0

Everybody, the Astrobiology Primer version 2.0 is online. I have been looking forward to this moment since 2009, when I encountered the first version of the Primer. I found it helpful and engaging, and I wondered when an update would come along. You see, I love what the Astrobiology Primer does. I love how the Primer is created. And I love why the Primer exists.

Longer than a science article but shorter than a textbook, the Astrobiology Primer presents a summary of astrobiology. It is an introduction written for a broad audience, especially for young scientists and just generally curious people who like to think about science.

The Primer proceeds through a series of questions—awesome and epic questions that have always preoccupied humankind: What is life? How did Earth form? What do we know about the possibility of life beyond Earth? Of course, we have so much further to go to answer these questions. Yet it is amazing to realize how much we do know. The Primer provides a starting point for discussing current knowledge and introducing new realms of research.

What makes this project particularly rewarding is the people behind it. The Primer is written by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. It represents the future of astrobiology, with enthusiasm and fresh perspectives. It means a lot to me that the journal I work for can support these newcomers. And I admire the authors for successfully bringing together topics as diverse as planetary accretion, phylogenetic trees, and the presence of methane on Mars; forming these topics into a clear and consistent narrative; and persisting through all the reviews, proofs, and final touches of the publishing process.

In conclusion, a word of praise to astrobiology. I love it so. A diverse collection of disciplines (geology, biology, astrophysics, chemistry, engineering, philosophy, climatology, sedimentology—to name just a few) converges to address the most essential questions. Who are we? How did we get here? Are we alone? How can we find and communicate with others? Astrobiology is microcosm and macrocosm. It is the very ground we walk on, and it is the farthest reaches of space. It is our past and our future.

So read the Astrobiology Primer! It is available for free download! Right now: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/ast.2015.1460

Three cheers and three awards for Overcup!

Congratulations to Overcup Press for winning three awards this week: two IPPYs and one Nautilus Book Award. They’ve earned it: Overcup publishes beautiful art books. I copy edited Buckminster Fuller: Poet of Geometry for them. And I’m keen to see The Tall Trees of Paris, which comes out next month.

For more info on what exactly an IPPY and a Nautilus Book Award are, see Overcup’s announcement here.

Larry McMurtry and My West

I spent my first handful of years in a town in Central Washington. Ever since then I’ve had an affinity for things rural, which puzzles me because, really, I am a child of the suburbs. Yet those early memories of wide spaces, wheat fields, combine harvesters, and 4-H fairs made their impression on me. Well. I’m not the first one to be drawn into the romance of farm life. And I’m not the first to sail on a sea of nostalgia.

Still, I have always–and legitimately so–considered myself a Westerner. When my family and I would pile into the car and drive to visit some relative, we measured our journey in hours: two, three, four, five hours to see family. And we spent those hours traversing plains and hills dry and rocky and, well, kind of glorious. When I finally came to learn of places like New York, Boston, and Atlanta, I knew they had nothing like this.

Later in my youth, my years in suburban Chicago enforced my Western identity. Just to move to Illinois we had to cover entire states of open space; Montana I particularly remember. And, as every kid does, I clung to what made me special. Washington and the West were exactly that.

If as a reader you are looking for someone indisputably Western, Larry McMurtry is a clear choice. Though I’d never before pictured myself reading his books, I was recently recommended Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. And to me the shining stars of this book are his descriptions of the West, of wild spaces, of pioneers and the pains of rural life. My favorite passage (p 201):

The Western land is mostly not kind–it has always favored strength over beauty. The strength of the land has to be matched by a strength within people, or the people don’t survive. The milder, more responsive environments–Virginia, say–might please the eye but seem, in the end, insipid compared to the West.

I lived on the harder, drier side of Washington–not the postcard-pretty Olympic Peninsula or sophisticated Seattle. Drive a ways out of town, and there were rattlesnakes. Drive farther, and the Columbia River moved like a shock through sharp hills, hardly resembling its presence farther down in the Scenic Gorge along Oregon. Most of all, I remember when Mount Saint Helens erupted. Yes, the West, where a mountain can explode and collapse. Probably that’s not what McMurtry had in mind when he wrote the passage above, but it’s the most potent expression of strength I have ever witnessed or am likely to witness.

Aside from the volcano, and given his family’s experiences in Texas, perhaps McMurtry would consider my Washington hometown gentle as a dove. Nonetheless, in my own way I learned that nature is big and rough. And though it is a big, rough, even cruel thing, I love how McMurtry writes about it. I recommend Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, for the reasons above and for the reasons that follow, though at times I have my complaints as well.

The humor. Throughout the book, he includes wonderful bits of humor. Jesse Brewer the old cowhand was my favorite. I also enjoyed the Archer County centennial doings. And I loved McMurtry’s frank admission of his terror of poultry.

The humanity. He tells a startling story about his parents and an incident that shaped their lives. This and other passages give a penetrating look into humanity, which, like nature, can be beautiful or terrible. McMurtry writes with insight.

The heart. McMurtry tells the tale of his open-heart surgery “for what help the record might give to those who have this surgery and find that they no longer feel quite themselves” (p 150). I think he really does readers a service. A compassion settled on me as I read of his experience. I recommend this part of the book to anyone (especially readers) recovering from serious illness. And, really, to those like me who haven’t suffered so much but who need to be made aware.

The readers. You can rope readers into two groups: (1) those who enjoy reading about other readers; (2) those who don’t, or are at least ambivalent. I am ambivalent. I’m glad to hear that other people read, I always want people to enjoy reading, I myself cherish the act of reading. But I know what I cherish about reading, and I have an idea of what others cherish about it. That’s enough. So McMurtry’s passages about it were dull to me. At times they sounded like name-dropping, as he rattled off this and that author. However, I can see that to other readers (including the one who recommended this book to me) the names of these authors open up new, fertile fields of literature.

The books. What did engage me was his long description of life as a book scout. I appreciated this for its view of the book as an object, valuable for its form as well as its content. He writes of books as solid, substantial individuals that dwell on bookshelves in bookstores. This is the aspect of books that I don’t mind reading about. Perhaps that’s why I chose to study publishing instead of writing. I love the physical presence of books and appreciate McMurtry’s elaboration on his pursuit of them.

The tragedy. Can you do justice to the West without writing about loss? McMurtry writes of the loss of his father’s profession, cattle ranching. More widespread and tragic, the loss of Native American lives and culture (which I felt should be more fully detailed in this book, but then it would be a different book). For my part, the hills around my Washington hometown are now blanketed with wind turbines, generating power for the valley. The wildness of the West is constantly being chopped up and commercialized. And on that topic Larry McMurtry expresses his feelings eloquently.

The flaws. This book, this collection of essays isn’t perfect. Because of its various topics, it’s bound to hit some wrong (or at least tedious) notes for readers. For me, the rambling passage about the disappearance of family time and the rise of the television and microwave was… well, those laments were old news by the 1980s. But slog through the parts that don’t appeal to you: the whole is worth it.

In conclusion, I want to say that although I’ve spent most of this review waxing eloquent about the West, I’d recommend this book to anyone. This is a book about place and the lives that come and go on this earth. What is more important than that?

. . .

McMurtry, Larry. (1999) Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, Simon & Schuster, New York. ISBN 0-684-85496-1