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:

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

Happy Holidays, Everyone

Happy holidays. I would like to post more often next year. We shall see.

Today I finished reading (again) one of my favorite books, The Hobbit. I hope you all are reading, too.

Space Movies… 2013

I discovered that I’d written this last year and never posted it. Well, here it is. I think Europa Report is still on Netflix, if you’d like to check it out.


Europa: Let’s go there.

When Gravity hit theaters, friends asked me if I was going to see it. I knew from the onset that I would not, did not want to see it. The more I heard about Gravity, the more it sounded like a disaster movie in space. I have never enjoyed disaster movies—I can’t derive satisfaction or stimulation from seeing one person or a handful of people survive xyz horrible thing while many other people suffer and die. I do not want to see that play out in space or anywhere else.

Last year [aka 2013] I did, however, see and for the most part enjoy Europa Report. Set in the near future, this film tells the story of a human mission to Europa, a jovian moon that has the potential to support life. Six explorers are chosen for the crew of Europa One. They set out on their journey, travel farther than any human has gone, and… lose contact with Earth. Europa Report is presented as footage filmed before, during, and after the mission’s launch—including the last transmission from Europa One, received on Earth months after communication with the mission dissolved.

Europa Report places its characters in harrowing crises and bitter isolation. But it’s different from Gravity because Europa Report ponders the mystery of life beyond Earth and explores the lengths that humans can or should go to in order to solve that mystery. Pointedly, crewmember Rosa asks,

Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?

Though I haven’t seen Gravity, I get the vibe that it doesn’t touch on such matters. Gravity seems to focus on really dreadful things happening—and human resourcefulness to survive such things. The latter has merit. If you liked Gravity, I’m ok with that. I’m glad a space movie made such an impact in 2013. But it isn’t my thing.

Mind you, Europa Report is not perfect. It drags sometimes. It employs a few tiresome tropes, and a few of the crises feel manufactured. The one thing I would absolutely change is the amount of static, blurry, or garbled screen moments. The static expresses Europa One’s difficulty transmitting and its eventual loss of contact with Earth. But there’s too much of it in the film. We get the point, folks. Static. We get it. Just tell the story.

But to end with some additional positive notes: The imagery in Europa Report is fantastic—Jupiter and its satellites are some of the most beautiful and freaky objects in our solar system. The movie whets one’s appetite for future jovian missions, robotic and human.

Also, through my work I have developed a strong appreciation for international missions. Thus I found the diverse cast in Europa Report satisfying; it added depth and reflected the reality of modern space exploration.

Artist's concept of the europan surface. Thanks, artist.

Artist’s concept of the europan surface. Thanks, artist.

If you haven’t checked out the images full size, click on them now. They are awesome.

Top image: Freckled Europa. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Colorado

Bottom image: Simulated View from Europa’s Surface (Artist’s Concept). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Nothing I do will ever be this awesome.

Over the holidays, I began reading Return of the King again. And I realized that, no matter what I do, I will never be as awesome as this guy.

Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had ever heard a mortal man achieve before:

Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

With that he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. (pp 819–820)

He blew on a horn and it exploded! And he shouted out epic poetry in a voice more clear (clearer?) than anyone ever.

. . .
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1994) The Return of the King, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York. ISBN 0-618-00224-3