Astrobiology on Display

Interview with David Grinspoon

Astrobiology asks how life on Earth began, whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, and what direction life might take in the future. Because the science encompasses so many aspects of biology, chemistry, geology, and other fields of inquiry – it has been described as the study of the universe and everything in it – it’s little wonder that astrobiology crops up again and again in various museum exhibits.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has now recognized the ubiquity of the science by recently hiring David Grinspoon, author of “Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life,” to be their curator of astrobiology. In this interview with Astrobiology Magazine’s Leslie Mullen, Grinspoon talks about curating extraterrestrial collections, and engaging the public’s excitement about space and exploration.

David Grinspoon, astrobiology curator to the galaxy.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): You’re the first astrobiology curator for a museum…

David Grinspoon (DG) : As far as I know I am the only curator of astrobiology on Earth, and perhaps in the entire galaxy.

AM: So what does an astrobiology curator do? There aren’t many astrobiology objects that could be put on display in a museum.

DG: My joke answer is that I’ll be responsible for maintaining the collection of alien organisms. All the hidden bodies in the basement can now be put proudly on display. I want to start polishing the glass window of a big display case, getting it ready for when we get them.

AM: Have all the scientific labels typed up and put in place.

DG: Exactly. Seriously though, in the space sciences department here, we do have some relevant collections to curate: meteorites and space hardware, for example. But “curator” is often just a title for a scientist at a museum. There are a growing number of positions at museums for research scientists who are called curators even if they’re not necessarily spending a lot of time curating collections. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has a staff of astrophysics curators, but obviously they don’t have stars in their collection. That might be even harder to curate than alien organisms!

Being a curator is a different kind of a job than being just a research scientist, however. My job here is a mix between research and other activities that are specifically suited for the museum setting, like educational and public outreach projects. I’ll be providing scientific content for displays about planetary science and life in the universe. I think it’s very cool that they hired a curator of astrobiology, and it is one indication of astrobiology’s arrival as a science. I doubt I will be the only curator of astrobiology for long.

Comparing the different types of planets that orbit our sun might provide some insight in how solar systems are constructed, and how prevalent life could be in the universe.

AM: As a museum curator, what do you spend more time doing: research projects, or public communication efforts?

DG: It varies from day to day. To the extent I can, I integrate the research and public outreach sides of my job. I brought all of my research projects with me from the Southwest Research Institute, where I worked previously. So I’m having a bit of a time management challenge now because I’m still doing this work, plus I have new education and communication projects at the museum. The good thing is that the public is excited about planetary exploration and the habitability of planets, which are the topics of my research. So when I’m giving lectures or contributing to exhibits or planetarium shows, I don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

AM: In the museum itself, are there any astrobiology displays?

DG: Yes, in a general sense. There’s a large new display called “Space Odyssey.” It’s a space sciences display, and it covers astrophysics, comparative planetology and planetary exploration. You can’t help but get into astrobiology when you’re talking about those subjects, because it’s such a big part of the motivation for space exploration, as well as an organizing focus of our study of the solar system and the wider galaxy.

AM: Astrobiology encompasses a wide variety of fields –- you have space science and exploration, but also paleontology, and the chemistry of life, and all sorts of other topics. I would imagine that there are various places within the museum other than Space Odyssey that astrobiology would touch on as well.

DG: That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about being here, because I love being in a place where I can walk down the hall and talk to a paleontologist, a geologist, or a zoologist, in addition to just other people who are space scientists like myself. And I think a museum is an ideal place to do astrobiology, both in terms of research and communication, because astrobiology is so inherently interdisciplinary — more so than any other science I know.

Progression from fangs to teeth, low-brow to high. Studying the evolution of primates and humans can provide insight into how intelligence develops on a planet.

There are a lot of scientists here who I think are actually doing astrobiology, but they don’t know it yet. There’s a guy studying human evolution, and he probably has never thought of himself as an astrobiologist. But from my point of view the evolution of complex life and intelligence is a part of astrobiology. So, for me, being in a place that is so inherently interdisciplinary is both intellectually stimulating and promising in terms of the possibilities for research collaborations and communication projects.

This is something I touched on in my book, Lonely Planets. Because astrobiology is such an interdisciplinary field, it makes astrobiologists better communicators than your typical scientist, on average. At our conferences and in our journals, we have to talk across disciplinary lines, so we have to avoid jargon. That forces us to develop a common scientific language, bucking the extreme specialization of the last 150 years of science, and become what I think of as Natural Philosophers –- where you can talk about all of science with some degree of literacy. This makes us better communicators with each other, and with the public as well. So a museum is a natural place for an astrobiologist.

AM: Do you anticipate that, rather than just being mentioned in various displays, the museum might someday have a dedicated astrobiology section that discusses the history of the science, the controversies, and the future of the field?

Ohio St. U. Big Ear Project/Jerry Ehman
The never-repeated SETI "Wow" signal. It occurred in 1977, and was classified as transient evidence that could not be confirmed. Credit: Ohio St. U. Big Ear Project

DG: It would be neat to have a dedicated exhibit. That’s a dream of mine in the long term.

AM: Because while the public is interested in the possibility of microbial life elsewhere and the differences among the planets, what fires their imagination are not only the Star Trek and Star Wars fantasies, but also the weird unexplained things that you touched on in Lonely Planets, such as the commonalty of alien abduction stories, or the mystery of the “Wow” signal.

DG: I agree. But it’s easier for me to come in and do new programs rather than new exhibits, because exhibits cost money. So I’m putting together programming at the museum to address some of those cultural issues. For instance, on June 15th I’m doing a program on images of alien life, addressing the question of whether there’s any reason to believe aliens will resemble humans at all, and talking about convergent evolution. I’m working with a local film critic, and we’re going to show movie clips and talk about pop culture and science.

As far as exhibits go, I think it’s more my role at this point to help beef up the astrobiology content of displays as opportunities arise, and to make sure that we keep current with the rapid pace of change in astrobiology. For instance, we are planning some new exhibitry and programming on the subject of climate change and Earth system science. Astrobiology would be bound up in that, because the story of the Earth — how it functions, and how it came to be a planet full of life different from the other planets in the universe –- touches on all of the major questions of astrobiology. So I will be one of the people providing scientific input into that, making sure Earth is represented from the perspectives of comparative planetology and astrobiology.

Representation of an alien life form in the movie, “Mars Attacks!”

AM: Since you now are more involved in public education, do you get a sense of how informed the public is about NASA? For instance, the new NASA budget proposes to cut astrobiology research by 50 percent in order to fund the space shuttle and International Space Station (ISS). Do you think the public understands there are these divisions within NASA?

DG: By and large, I don’t think they know these choices are being made. After I gave one of my first public talks since I joined the museum, in the Q&A session people were asking about future missions. I started talking about the conflicts within the NASA community about what to spend resources on, and a lot of people, including some who are space fans and stay current on what’s happening in space exploration, were surprised. Several people said they weren’t aware of these conflicts; they just assumed everything was covered within the NASA budget.

AM: But in a sense, ISS and shuttle are astrobiology, too, because the ultimate goal behind them is to develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle and go on to the moon, Mars, and beyond. I’m wondering what your point of view is on that.

Opportunity rover on the surface of Mars. As permanent residents of Mars, the rovers won’t ever be on display in a museum on Earth. But perhaps after humans have established permanent settlements on Mars, the rovers will become star attractions in the first martian museum.

DG: I think it’s unfortunate to make near-term cuts to planetary research and missions, because these are central to the most essential questions we’re studying about the solar system and how we fit in it. Also, the public’s excitement about space science these days is to a large degree focused on planetary exploration. I think there’s this sense at NASA, which maybe is left over from the Apollo days, that the only thing people get excited about is humans in space. But if you look at what NASA’s done in the last decade that’s gotten the most public attention and headlines –- it’s not the manned space flight program, it’s Galileo, and the Mars Exploration Rovers, and Cassini. So I think it’s a shame to take something that you’re doing right, and cut it so that you can fund other things.

I do think there are a lot of neat things that can be done with a Crew Exploration Vehicle, and I definitely want to see it happen. I’m quite excited about having humans in space. This may sound corny, but I think it’s our destiny to eventually move beyond the Earth and become a trans-planetary society.

But ultimately, research is the soul of exploration. It doesn’t make sense to go to places and not support the science, because that’s the meat of what we do when we get to the planets. So you can’t have exploration without the science, but you also can’t have science without exploration. It’s a question of achieving the right balance.


Visit Lonely Planets, an Interview with David Grinspoon: Parts A: Introduction * 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * B: Encore