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(Courtesy David Grinspoon)

“Life Out There”

The Library of Congress’s first resident astrobiologist takes inspiration from both Carl Sagan and Jerry Garcia.

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My work at the Library of Congress will allow me to get down in book form some ideas I’ve been developing for a long time about how human life fits into planetary evolution and how this illuminates our current choices.  I’m very excited about that opportunity.  As far as planetary exploration goes, I’m thrilled to be on the science teams of both the European Venus Express, which is currently in orbit around Venus and the Curiosity Rover that just landed successfully in Gale Crater on Mars.  This is going to be quite an adventure. I’m also determined to be part of a future American Venus mission. We have several that are in various stages of the proposal process and future exploration of our sister planet is absolutely essential for our ability to contextualize the evolution of our own planet.  I want to help make that happen.

While on loan to the Library of Congress, will you have to forego performances with the Denver planetarium's House Band of the Universe, which, in your words, plays “groove-based jazzy spacey afro pop?”

No! In fact we have just been funded by NASA to do a limited national tour of our “Life Out There” musical planetarium show. So I will spend some time working with the House Band of the Universe even while I am in Washington for a year. I’m hoping that transporter beam technology becomes available soon, as this will make it all a lot easier.

Do Carl Sagan and Jerry Garcia share equal billing as your inspirations?

They both loom large in my personal galaxy. Everyone in my field was inspired by Carl Sagan, and I also had the privilege of knowing Carl very well, as a family friend, an uncle figure, and later as a mentor and colleague. There is nobody alive today who combines his exploratory intellect with his ability to connect science to the masses. It was a unique package and gives a lot of us something to strive for. I didn’t know Garcia personally, although I did meet him a couple of times and certainly spent (some would say misspent) many hours in various clubs, halls and stadiums listening to him play. My impression was that he was very kind and had a deep and generous intelligence. It’s quite affirming to meet your heroes and have them seem wonderful up close and personal. Creatively he broke boundaries and invented his own rules. He did for musical genres what astrobiology is trying to do with separate scientific disciplines: merge them and make something new, worthwhile and larger than the sum of the parts.

Your critique of the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow: It “sucked giant hailstones.” Are there any popular films you can commend for attempts at scientific accuracy?

Did I say that?  How intemperate! That movie cut some serious corners. The quality of science in films is often quite poor. The model is that producers hire a “science advisor” who comes in after the story is mostly done and gives them some nerdy jargon to make the film seem more credible. There are web sites that advise aspiring science advisors to “Remember, the story comes first”. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the whole thing is based on a premise that is stupid and creates misconceptions, as long as you can sneak in some science lessons or vocabulary. Well, what about actually having the science drive the story? That’s what has shaped the few really excellent science fiction films. The best is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other good ones are Contact, The Andromeda Strain, Blade Runner, and Gattaca. These filmmakers started with the science and built a story around its wildest implications.

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