Carl Sagan: The Lonely Pale Blue Dots?

Part III

An interview with Planetary Scientist David Grinspoon about his newest book, "Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life"

Visit Lonely Planets, Parts A: Introduction * 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * B: Encore

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): On the one hand, you say the recent popularity of astrobiology has allowed many scientists to "come clean" about their underlying motivation – the search for life elsewhere. Yet you also state that a lot of other scientists resent this trend, since planets perceived to have less biologic potential – like Venus and Pluto – aren’t given as much attention or funding.

David Grinspoon (DG): Just last week I was at an astrobiology colloquium at the University of Colorado. It was a very ambitious and wide-ranging talk connecting atmospheric evolution with biological evolution. At the end an astronomer asked the speaker, "We astronomers have derived universal laws of stellar and galactic evolution which form the backbone of our field. What comparable laws do you astrobiologists have?" The speaker became flustered, and couldn’t give an adequate answer.

The Earth is our only example of planetary life. This makes it difficult to unravel what is universal and what is accidental about the nature and history of life.

The astrobiology movement is still new, but it represents a fundamental re-alignment of NASA’s focus, making our scientific approach toward the universe more "biocentric." I welcome this, because the question of how life and consciousness emerged from the physical universe, and how unique these processes are to Earth, is the most exciting, fundamental, and widely accessible way to encapsulate the motivation behind so much of what NASA does.

Yet whenever you have a major shift in priorities within a large organization that so many of us depend upon for support, of course people will be concerned and feel threatened. Astrobiology forces us to be much more interdisciplinary than our training or culture has prepared us for. This is one of the best and most promising parts of the whole movement, yet understandably this is challenging for people.

You do hear some cynical grumbling about astrobiology out here in the scientific trenches. People think it lacks rigor, or is mostly hype. Part of this comes from some exaggerated claims made about some aspects of astrobiology. People talk about it as a brand new field, not acknowledging that some brave folks were doing exobiology for decades when it was considered a "fringe" field of science, before astrobiology was anointed in the late ’90s. And there is a bit too much talk of it as a "scientific revolution," which invites unflattering comparisons to real scientific revolutions that fundamentally changed our worldview, like plate tectonics or quantum mechanics. Astrobiology could lead to a revolution, especially if we do find other life, or really nail down how Earth came to life, but so far the progress has been incremental.

Some of the concern and criticism about astrobiology also has been fueled by narrow interpretations of how we should realign our planetary exploration program to be more "biocentric." When I was on SSES – NASA’s Solar System Exploration Subcommittee, which I served on from 1998 through 2001 – some people seemed to think that this meant, "explore Mars and Europa, and to hell with everywhere else." The Pluto mission was threatened at times by a false dichotomy that pitted it against a possible Europa orbiter, and therefore cast it as "anti-astrobiology." Fortunately, as a community we seem to have come to our senses, and realized that even if we are being "biocentric" in mindset, we need to explore broadly. We don’t know enough yet about life or about planets to narrow our search too much. Pluto holds unique and indispensable secrets about the evolution of the solar system. It is part of the story of how we got to be where we are today.

Similarly, while Venus may seem a less obvious target of "biocentric" exploration, NASA recently has included Venus on a short-list of highest priority near-future exploration goals. Venus can provide context for understanding Earth and its path to life that we can find nowhere else. I also think that there could be life in the Venusian clouds, but that’s another story.

Venus up-close, as photographed by the Soviet Venera 13 lander, which parachuted to the Venusian surface on March 1, 1982
Credit: Venera

AM: Carl Sagan obviously had a huge impact on your personal and professional life. His name permeates your book, and your philosophy of alien life has parallels to his. You note that Sagan was often treated with scorn from his peers for popularizing science. Your book is full of many references to popular culture, such as cartoons, science fiction, movies, and music. Do you find you are smeared with the same paintbrush of "trivializing science" that Sagan was, or do you think such attitudes among scientists have changed?

DG: The mind-set in the scientific community has changed. Carl had a lot to do with this. He got a lot of crap for being a "popularizer," yet over time people in the field came to appreciate the connection between his efforts and continued public support for our research and our planetary exploration missions. The Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society acknowledged this by establishing the annual Sagan Medal, which is awarded to a scientist who has effectively communicated with the public. NASA also has encouraged scientists in this direction by adding more funding for education and public outreach to all of our research programs.

Yet some of our institutions have not changed. There is a huge amount of mistrust of "popularizers," and even of good teachers in American research universities. Scientists who win teaching awards or literary prizes need to hide these stains from promotion and tenure committees. That is pathetic. What kind of moron would think that "pop science" is an insult? Some university administrators do.

Personally, I love reading good pop science books. I learn a lot that way. And many "popular" books contain new ideas that scientists find useful in their research. I love it when I see my book "Venus Revealed" cited in papers or research proposals, and there are a few ideas in "Lonely Planets" that somebody might pick up on in a research paper some day, be it on this or some other planet.

Much of the surface of Venus is covered by lava flows (shown above).
Credit: BNSC

I’m sure some people don’t like my writing style, because it’s personal, but nobody in any pop medium does anything really great if they’re trying to please everybody and offend nobody. One reviewer of "Venus Revealed" called me "the Hunter S. Thompson of planetary science," which some people seemed to see as a smear, but I consider it high praise.

If I re-read something I’ve written and it seems to be in a generic science voice, I usually throw it out or take another stab at it. I get the impression that other scientists appreciate the effort. The feedback I get from my peers in the planetary science and astrobiology communities is mostly positive.

Ultraviolet image of Venus obtained by Pioneer-1.
Image Credit: BNSC

AM: I thought I detected a note of bitterness when you describe how people once "would giggle" at meetings whenever extraterrestrial life was mentioned, and now, seven years after Carl Sagan’s death, astrobiology is a major concern of NASA and every scientist is leaping on the astrobiology bandwagon to get funding. This situation reminds me of the character David Drumlin in Sagan’s book, "Contact," who thwarts Ellie’s efforts for years only to step in and take credit when the aliens finally do come calling. I would think it would be hard not to harbor resentment for those who once laughed but now reap the benefits.

DG: Uh oh, did I say something bitter? I guess if there is any resentment it would be connected with a couple of times when somebody’s work was belittled in a way that might have been hurtful – work that would be more celebrated in the current climate. But resentment isn’t a very useful emotion is it?

My point in mentioning these kinds of conversions was to provide an illustration of the remarkable, dramatic, and sudden sea-change that has recently occurred in official and community attitudes about the scientific study of alien life. People were dabbling in "exobiology" before this, and a few people worked at it full time. NASA supported this at some level all along, but it was not considered mainstream planetary science. All that changed over the last five years. And some people who once dissed exobiology are now known as astrobiologists. But so what? I see the transition as a wonderful development. What’s wrong with people changing their minds? I like the new attitude. Life belongs in the center of our thoughts about the universe.

David H. Grinspoon is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder Colorado. His book Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life was published in November 2003. All rights reserved.

Related Web Pages

The Great Debate: Is Complex Life Common in the Universe?
Space Invaders
Cause for Optimism: Part III : The Drake Equation Revisited
Mighty Aphrodite
Venusian Cloud Colonies
Lonely Planets
David H. Grinspoon
Long, Strange Trips
PBS: Is Science Fiction Science? Michael Crichton, David Brin, Octavia Butler