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.)

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

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

Astrobiology Valentines

Thermophiles are red.
Psychrophiles are blue.
Endoliths rock,
and so do you!

Last night I seized on the idea of Valentines for astrobiologists. I think these ought to exist. So I took the time to compose a few. Note that these are based on the knowledge a copy editor has gleaned from years of reading astrobiology articles. I’m not a legit astrobiologist, so the science might be shaky.

By the way, in my little poem above, I don’t mean to reinforce the stereotype that hot things are red and cold things are blue. Thermophiles, psychrophiles—you can be whatever color you want to be!

More astrobiology Valentines:
Read the rest of this entry »

NASA’s Day of Remembrance

Charles Bolden 2014January 31 is NASA’s Day of Remembrance. Please take some time out of your day to learn about those we remember: http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/DOR2014/index.html. In the name of space exploration, they made the ultimate sacrifice. We think of them and thank them.

The photo was taken last Friday at Arlington National Cemetary. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden laid a wreath in memory of the men and women who lost their lives. Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.