Pale Blue Dot III: An Astrobiological Field Report

This false-color composite image, taken at a region of the rock outcrop dubbed "Shoemaker’s Patio" near the MER Opportunity’s landing site, shows finely layered sediments, which have been accentuated by erosion. The sphere-like grains or "blueberries" distributed throughout the outcrop can be seen lining up with individual layers. This observation indicates that the spherules are geologic features called concretions, which form in pre-existing wet sediments. This image was captured by the rover’s panoramic camera on the 50th martian day, or sol, of the mission.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Astrobiologists who study weird life often report from exotic locales, but those of us who study distant planets don’t get to make field trips. Yet we don’t always stay in the lab, glued to our computers. Sometimes we gather at conferences to hobnob with colleagues, trumpet our latest findings, and start new friendships and collaborations.

In September I participated in "Pale Blue Dot III: Searching for Life on Distant Words" at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. The other two Pale Blue Dot workshops were held in 1996 and 1999, both at NASA Ames Research Center. It is striking how much the world, and the worlds, have changed since then. Over 200 extrasolar planets have been discovered, and the Mars Exploration Rovers have shown evidence of surface water on another planet.

Billed as "a workshop engaging scientists, the media, and the public in the search for extraterrestrial habitable planets", it was an unusual get-together, even by astrobiology standards. The workshop web site made it sound like two separate meetings – one about astrobiology and one about science communication — grafted together in the hopes of producing a new symbiotic hybrid.

The sessions each featured three scientific talks, and then a "media respondent" would present a journalist’s perspective. Afterwards there would be a panel discussion, with the scientists and the media respondent fielding questions from the audience.

Nobody seemed to know what a "media respondent" was supposed to do. Because of this confusion, the role was interpreted in different ways. Some used the time to respond to the scientific talks they had just heard, and offer a journalist’s perspective on the subject matter or on the language and communication skills of the scientists. Others ignored the science presented in the sessions, and instead gave talks about how journalists work, how science media is changing, or how we might package our science into "stories" to better reach the public.

For example, at the end of a session on "Understanding the Distribution of Life in the Universe," Michael Lemonick of Time Magazine said there has been a "dumbing down" of science. Magazines are competing for the eyeballs of a public with an ever-decreasing attention span, and as a result the average length of a Time science story has become much shorter over the last decade.

Cassini’s powerful radar eyes have uncovered a geologic goldmine in a region called Xanadu on Saturn’s moon Titan. The geologic features include river channels, mountains and hills, a crater and possible lakes.
Credit: NASA/JPL

In explaining which scientific developments will, or will not, become a story, Lemonick stressed that they must seem new. The Mars Exploration Rovers, he said, will never again be a big story in Time, no matter what new wonders they discover, because the story has already been done. This elicited groans from the audience. His presentation made me realize there are huge filters on what news gets out to the public, and made me appreciate that, fortunately, we do science for purposes other than generating stories in Time Magazine.

Lemonick’s presentation contrasted with that of Leonard David, a reporter for the web-based, who said he loves to report on the details of scientific progress. I could see how this would contribute to the troubles of print magazines, as those seeking the deeper story will increasingly look to the web for science news. Online publications (including Astrobiology Magazine) are slowly sucking the eyeballs away from print journals.

Respondent Glennda Chui, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, said newspapers also are hurting because they must compete with the web, where people get their news for free. So newspapers are decreasing their reporting staffs, and it is now more likely that science will be reported by a general reporter, not a science writer. General reporters, she said, are often terrified when they go to scientific meetings. They don’t know what we’re talking about, or what is important in science.

During these sessions, some of the journalists complained that the science talks were too jargon-laden. Meanwhile, many scientists didn’t know if we were supposed to be preparing our talks for other scientists, as we might do at a "normal" workshop, or for the many journalists, students and educators in attendance. The happy outcome was that most speakers split the difference, giving talks that were both rich in scientific content and relatively easy to understand.

David Grinspoon, curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and author of the book, “Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life.”

My talk was on the afternoon of the second day, in a session about the diversity of solar system planets. I had been asked to speak on "The Evolution of Mars, Venus, and Titan: Lessons for the Limits of Habitability". Since most of the names on the speaker list were scientists from various fields of astrobiology, I had prepared the kind of talk I give at scientific meetings. But after the first day, I stayed up late that night to re-write my talk: deleting slides, removing details, and cutting out technical terms that might be considered jargon.

As it turned out, I ran out of time and had to skip the "Titan" part of my talk, largely because I explained things in a more general way than I would for an audience of scientists. Cutting the jargon meant I had to drastically reduce the content.

This experience actually gave me an increased appreciation of the much-maligned "jargon". Specialized language helps us cover more ground so that we can get to the scientific punch line in the time allotted. Its true that scientists are often guilty of crimes against language. But when addressing an audience of scientists, technical terms help us communicate more efficiently. Jargon has its place.

The greatest challenge of the Pale Blue Dot III workshop, at least for the scientists, was that we were expected to be clear for a non-specialist audience, but also be technically rigorous and groundbreaking.

Such a hybrid talk is hard to give, but a joy to listen to and for the most part the speakers were up to the task. The result was astrobiology bliss. I learned more at this workshop, both about science and communication, than at any meeting in recent memory. I even learned the meanings of terms that I don’t normally ask about because I assume all scientists except for me already know them!

A view of Earth from Voyager 1, at a distance of more than 4 billion miles. Earth is the dot in the middle of the bright streak.
Image credit: NASA/JPL

Another unusual feature of the conference was that we were held captive the whole time. At other meetings, you attend some sessions and then take breaks to rest your brain or get other work done. Talks are often held at the hotel where you are staying, so it’s easy to duck out. But in this case there was no escape. We were picked up from our downtown Chicago hotel every morning at 7:30 AM and taken to the Adler Planetarium, where we were fed breakfast, lunch and dinner, with long morning and afternoon sessions in between. By the time we returned to our hotel, it was dark outside. This forced immersion was the subject of many jokes and some grumbling.

The Adler is a not a bad place to be trapped – it is a museum of astronomical delights built in an impressive location, on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan. During our lunch breaks I would look longingly out at the stunning views of the city skyline across the sparkling water, or at the trees surrounding the Field Museum and Chicago’s famous Soldiers Field where Jerry Garcia played his last show in 1995. It was all so near, yet so far away. We were like museum specimens encased in glass, subjects of a 3-day experiment in science communication.

Astrobiology is now a decade-long experiment in overcoming disciplinary boundaries, forging collaboration between scientists. This workshop seemed like an attempt to push the experiment one step further. Can we go beyond the traditional boundaries and include journalists, educators and social scientists in the process of science? Or should they remain on the sidelines, watching and reporting on our scientific activities? Including others does lead to better communication, but it also requires patience, since it takes time to explain everything to the uninitiated.

Inevitably in a program this experimental, there were a few problems. To stay on schedule, after each science talk we were only allowed to ask "questions of clarification". Then, at the end of the session, we would supposedly get a chance to ask more substantive questions about the science during a panel discussion with the respondents. However, the panel discussions often went in different directions due to the respondent’s opening talk. Thus we couldn’t always ask the questions we wanted to ask, and we lost some of the give-and-take of a normal science workshop. This was frustrating, as many of the talks stimulated questions I wanted to ask, and I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

For example, Sara Seager from the Carnegie Institution gave an excellent talk about "vegetation’s red edge". Green plants (trees, plankton, and other species that use chlorophyll to capture the energy of sunlight to manufacture food) are brightly reflective in the near-infrared. Seager’s attempt to find out why struck me as a great example of astrobiology in action. Astrophysicists interested in the spectral signature of an inhabited Earth-like planet have become aware of this spectral feature of green plants, but biologists have never tried to explain it. Now, thanks to astrobiology, astrophysicists are helping biologists try to understand this puzzling global property of life on Earth.

Image Credit: The University of Liverpool

Seager suggested the red edge of green plants may be a result of the need for thermal regulation. Because green plants absorb a lot of sunlight, they could overheat. But being reflective in the near-infrared might help them to shed excess heat. This is truly a cool idea. At the end of her talk I wanted to ask this: "Your idea suggests that photosynthetic life adapted to very cold places may NOT show the red edge. A way to test this would be to look at organisms adapted to cold places, like photosynthetic extremophiles in Antarctica. Has anyone looked to see if they show the red edge?" If this thermal-regulation hypothesis is correct, then habitable planets on the outer edge of the habitable zone, farther from a star, might not show the red edge effect.

During the meeting there was much discussion of the recent NASA budget cuts to astrobiology, and what this might mean for the future of the field. Even though many are experiencing harder times, and students are facing uncertain employment prospects, the field of astrobiology doesn’t seem to be shrinking or retrenching. Even though the funding situation has people nervous, that didn’t dim the enthusiasm about future projects like the Terrestrial Planet Finder. The overall scientific theme of the workshop was finding habitable Earthlike planets around other stars, so there was much talk about observations to be made with TPF and other instruments. Nobody doubts that we will build instruments to study rocky planets in our galactic neighborhood. The "we" in this case could mean the current generation of astrobiologists, or our intellectual descendants.

At any rate, somewhere, somebody in the galaxy is looking through a telescope, searching for planetary dots of any color. Maybe our pale blue orb will enter their field of view. They would be able to monitor the gas composition of our atmosphere, noting the recent build up of carbon dioxide. Perhaps they are wondering if this change is due to some geological properties of our planet, or if instead it reveals inhabitants who are clever but unwise.

Related Web Pages

Searching for Pale Blue Dots
Handful of Habstars
The (Astrobiology) Canterbury Tales
Looking Down on Opportunity
Ethane Flakes Into Methane Lakes
Jellyfish-Like Creatures Fight Global Warming
Phytoplankton Cloud Dance