Deception Point

Who wrote the Great Astrobiology Novel, and what can one learn from reading it?

mars_life
Close-up of famous shapes measuring 20 to 200 nanometers across in Allen Hills meteorite [ALH84001], found at Allen Hills, Antarctica, showing what has generated debate and controversy around claims of ancient fossilized microbial life. Around 28 Mars meteorites have been identified so far.
Image Credit: NASA

If forced to answer this question today, a consensus might build around the particulars of one record-setting novelist, Dan Brown. After only one year in hardcover, 53 printings, and 14 consecutive weeks in first place on the New York Times bestseller list, Brown’s current blockbuster novel "The DaVinci Code", is already "the bestselling adult novel of all time within a one-year period". There are 6.8 million copies in print. But before authoring that runaway bestseller, novelist Brown wrote another book, arguably the first novel directly addressing the astrobiology community’s interests.

Entitled "Deception Point", Brown’s book finds itself on a shelf among the vast library of other novels about creepy creatures from another world. But Brown is perhaps unique in considering what astrobiology itself seeks to examine: how would a cross-disciplinary team validate another lifeform? One finds this book not classified as much among science fiction novels as shelved among those page-turning thrillers. The novel is also likely the first mainstream fiction to use the term ‘astrobiology’ explicitly when describing NASA’s programmatic search for life elsewhere.

Brown’s thriller has the potential to introduce the scientific discipline called astrobiology to a wider audience than any effort to date. Brown has become known as an intricate plot-weaver; his stories pay attention to the finer details of a particular setting. "Deception Point" is convincing to those interested in astrobiology based on its locations alone: an arctic ice shelf, the deepest ocean ridges, and ultimately the world’s meteorite collections. But how solid or slippery that arctic ice shelf may prove for the author’s fact checker is worth a round-trip journey to the ends of the astrobiology discipline itself. Can a plausible case be assembled that life is not anywhere but now right under our noses, among the many meteorites that bombard Earth annually? What fallout, both politically and scientifically, might accompany an announcement that Earth had been visited by fossilized biology from another world?

James Cameron
As an artist and film-maker, James Cameron has a particular personal interest in space, NASA. Credit: Lightstorm/Cameron

If any fiction author working today could take on these perplexing questions, they would have to do considerable background research. Brown did just that. As Penzler’s Pick reviewed "Deception Point" in 2001, "It is a pleasure to report that his new book lives up to his reputation as a writer whose research and talent make his stories exciting, believable, and just plain unputdownable… I repeat, Dan Brown’s research is very, very good."

In truth both the book’s questions are complex to answer. According to filmmaker James Cameron , we may know the answer to the expected political and scientific fallout of finding fossils on a meteorite already, since a case study happened once before in 1996. "I think we already know," Cameron told Astrobiology Magazine. "Didn’t Bill Clinton announce that the Allen Hills meteorite contained Martian organisms? Don’t we already know the answer to that? People went, "Hey, there’s life on Mars, cool. It’s bacteria… If ( aliens ) don’t land on the White House lawn and get out with a death ray, I think the average person is not going to be deeply shocked psychologically. Our expectations have been so elevated from science fiction movies."

The plot of "Deception Point" hinges on a biologically interesting meteor being profound enough to shake presidential politics. In an intricate twist on fact, the press conference held by Brown’s fictional President announces that a meteor has been found swarming with strange insect-like fossils.

To fact check what ensues in "Deception Point", or any novel for that matter, is daunting. If the fiction were intended to be a textbook, this story might take up where the 1996 Mars meteorite left off. But given Brown’s meticulous attention to detail, the task is capable of providing a rich survey of astrobiology just to sort out the facts from the fiction. So in contrapuntal fashion, consider how one might try to mark up the first mainstream astrobiology novel and to check its booknotes.


Q: Is the Arctic ice shelf a good hunting grounds for meteorites?

Fiction: In Brown’s story, one main character is the meteorite itself, since the chase is set off when a ten foot rock appears with suspiciously alien fossils. The meteorite is found north of the Arctic circle on the Milne Ice Shelf, the largest solid ice floe in the Northern Hemisphere. The ice shelf is four miles wide with a thickness reaching three hundred feet.

Extreme Explorers' Hall of Fame
The autonomous Antarctic meteor finder, Nomad, uses artificial intelligence to recognize and classify promising rocks
Credit: Carnegie Mellon, cmu.edu

Fact: Over 22,000 meteorites have been collected on Earth, mostly when spotted as dark charcoal rocks against the barren-white landscape of Antarctica.

According to the Canadian Arctic Meteorite Project, the chances of finding such a meteorite outside of Antarctica or a desert are small. They published their findings in journal Meteoritics: "Substantial concentrations of meteoritic material have been recovered from the Antarctic ice sheets and smaller concentrations from some hot arid regions of the world; no major accumulations, however, have been discovered from the northern latitudes. Searches on the Greenland Ice Cap have, to date, not recovered any meteoritic material…A major obstacle to these searches is the logistics involved."

One problem is weather, as surprises await any scientific team embarking to uncover cosmic biology. Foremost on that list, the Arctic’s terrestrial biology is very tricky. The Canadian report continues: "A number of factors make these areas unfavourable for a search: the unpredictable weather; the treacherous nature of the margin during the short Arctic summer melt; the numerous meltwater streams flowing directly into the sea, that make travelling difficult and that could carry small meteorites off the ice cap; and the presence of large numbers of polar bears, to name a few."

polar_bear_print
Polar bear footprint in the snow, compared to hand-size. The dangers of the Great White North, around Alaska’s North Slope. Credit: M. Pruis

The Arctic also is not a continent. The Canadian report concludes, "There are apparently no instances of topological barriers to the ice as seen in Antarctica…[Arctic] boulders over 50 kilograms were easily transported by larger meltwater streams. Any material that fell into these streams could therefore be carried off the margin…"

Q: Are Earth-observing satellites a good way to find meteorites ?

Fiction: In Brown’s story, the seminal meteorite is found from orbit. Introducing this find, the fictional NASA Administrator [p. 80] says: "The President asked me to brief you fully…[Earth-Observing Satellites, or] EOS is a constellation of five NASA satellites which scrutinize the earth in different ways–ocean mapping, geological fault analyses, polar ice-melt observations, location of fossil fuel reserves…Two weeks ago, the Polar Orbiting Density Scanner [PODS] passed over the ice shelf and spotted a density anomaly that looked nothing like anything we’d expected to see. Two hundred feet beneath the surface, perfectly embedded in a matrix of solid ice, PODS saw what looked like an amorphous globule about ten feet in diameter. …As it turns out, the rock in the ice beneath us is significantly more dense than any type of rock found …within a four-hundred-mile radius."

Fact: Here, one discovers an instance of Brown’s attention to detail. The Earth Observing System (EOS) indeed is the centerpiece of NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise (ESE). It is composed of a series of satellites in polar orbit. After 100,000 orbits and the acquisition of over 29 million images, the workhorse Landsat 5 satellite recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2004 and continues to operate successfully.

Collecting what will ultimately become a new, 15-year global data set, the flagship Terra satellite is currently one of four EOS satellites in orbit, with fifteen more planned over the next four years. Its highest image resolution is 15-90 meters and in any observing wavelength, is not capable of resolving an object 10 feet in diameter.

Antarctic_landscape
Antarctic changing landscape. Coldest surviving organisms: 5 F (-15 C) Cryptoendoliths

There is no PODS satellite.

Since EOS is capable of generating global data sets every 9 days or so, meteorite hunters would benefit from surveying the planet as a whole from orbit, but likely only classified satellite technology could capture such fine-scale objects from an altitude more than 400 miles above the surface.

Q: Astrobiology is the continuation of the SETI program?

Fiction: One of Brown’s skeptical NASA critics, a congressman running for President, argues that astrobiology is a renamed version of the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, or SETI’s radio telescope program. In the early 1990’s, political pressure slashed these radio searches from any direct support in the official federal budget, a sudden about-face documented elsewhere and included in Carl Sagan’s book, "Contact", along with the movie based on that story.

trilobite
400 million-year-old trilobite fossil. Trilobites dominated the Earth as a marine fauna during the Cambrian Period. Credit: NYSED

During a CNN debate scene in "Deception Point", Brown’s congressman, Senator Sexton [p106] states: "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was NASA’s most abysmal money pit ever. Although NASA had tried to give the project a facelift by renaming it ‘Origins’ and shuffling some of the objectives, it was still the same losing gamble…if I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat."

Fact: The NASA ‘Origins’ program supports among its many projects, the Hubble Space Telescope and other planetary observations. Neither ‘Origins’ nor the astrobiology initiative was allowed by Congress to support SETI radio searches directly. The SETI Institute has survived on private funding and largely academic instrumentation like Cornell-operated, Arecibo Observatory, the world’s largest radio telescope. Only within the last year and a half has the SETI Institute won competitive grants within the consortium of a dozen or so universities and NASA centers that make up NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. That research largely centers on planetary data analysis.

So while Dan Brown is known for his detailed research, there are a few glitches among these otherwise richly written highlights. Even in the most successful astrobiology novel so far, the north might give way to the south: the Arctic is not a likely place to find a meteorite. Even more challenging, to find a denser rock from orbit is next to impossible if the meteor came to rest deep inside an ice shelf. But finding fossils buried in a meteor is not just a fiction writer’s dream. Astrobiologists may have just a few booknotes of their own to offer on the subject.


Related Web Pages

Dan Brown: Official Site
Could Opportunity Find Life on Mars?
Evidence of bacteria on Europa?
Primordial Recipe: Spark and Stir
Prospecting for Viruses
SETI Institute
NSF Life in Extreme Environments (LEXEN) Program
Introduction to the Archaea – Life’s extremists
Life without Volcanic Heat