Reading Sci-Fi with Astrobioloigist David Grinspoon

David Grinspoon is a comparative planetologist and an astrobiologist. He’s also a big book nerd, and his love for both fiction and nonfiction are proudly on display in his own new book, Earth In Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future.

Grinspoon’s book uses insight from the study of the other planets in our solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life—along with a healthy dollop of science fiction—to contextualize our current moment on Earth. According to Grinspoon, we are at a crossroads. Humans have become a planetary force, reshaping Earth’s ecosystems, biogeochemical cycles, climate, and more. But so far we’ve done so largely by accident, and often to the detriment of other species. Now is the moment to “human up” and start managing the planet intentionally, in order to protect its millions of species and our own health and happiness. If we prove to be equal to the task, human intervention could someday save more species than we’ve ever driven extinct by stabilizing the climate over the long term and fending off any large space rocks that might otherwise send us all the way of the dinosaurs. The result would be a transition to an intelligent planet, what Grinspoon calls Terra Sapiens.

I was interested to note that the book used a lot of examples from sci-fi, and could tell I was reading the words of a true fan. I’ve been meaning to explore this sprawling genre myself, something I didn’t do when younger out of a misplaced snobbery. I was an English major, after all. I was supposed to enjoy the slog through Henry James’ The Ambassadors rather than anything with, like, lasers in it.

But as Grinspoon and I discussed over Skype and beers, the geeks have won and sci-fi is officially cool—or maybe it has always been cool; I just didn’t know it. So I decided to get some tips on what I should read as I frantically catch up with the rest of the world. Here’s a edited version of our conversation.

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“Precisely, Sir,” said Jeeves.

“I hear the carrots are delicious,” says 12-year-old Brian. “Would you like to try some?”

The elderly lady across the table takes another bite and Brian smiles. They make some conversation and agree they should have lunch together again sometime.

Meanwhile Casper, in the house next door, approaches a man. “It’s time for lunch. Let’s go to the kitchen and make some lunch together.” The man would like a tuna sandwich, so Casper walks him through the process of making it for himself, then leads him into the dining room.

Casper’s friend Tangy rolls up fresh from facilitating a bingo game. “You have a Skype call from your son. If you’d like to talk to him, just press the green square.”

Brian, Casper and Tangy are experimental socially-assistive androids, from Goldie Nejat’s Autonomous Systems and Biomechatronics Lab at the University of Toronto. They’re designed to help out in assisted living facilities, particularly for residents with dementia, but they don’t actually do anything for you. In fact, they are there to make sure you do everything you can, so that the staff don’t end up helping you too much and infringing on your independence. Continue reading

Honest to God, DARPA & Jet Belts

Dear Reader:  the above is a sketch of an Individual Mobility System (IMS) proposed by a very special agency in the Department of Defense. The sketch was unearthed by my friend and much-admired colleague, Sharon Weinberger, who generously shared it on Twitter.  You could call this an IMS.  Or you could call it a jet belt.   — Ann

Ann:  Sharon, you’ve made my day, my month, my whole life.  Before we can get into the exquisite sweetness of this technology, I need to say that you didn’t just happen across this. It was part of your exhaustive research for your new book called The Imagineers of War, which is a history of my most beloved of all Department of Defense agencies, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; and I urge the reader to think about that name for just a little minute and see what thrills race up and down your spine.  So Sharon, first would you tell the thrilled reader what DARPA actually is and does?

Sharon: DARPA is a Pentagon agency that supports research with the goal of developing new weapons or other technologies for the military. Beyond that basic mission, what the agency is, or is supposed to do, is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. I think there is the widespread impression now that DARPA is a “science fiction” agency developing gee-whiz gadgets for the military, like the aforementioned jet belt. In large part, my book disputes this notion, so all the more ironic that I’m now highlighting the jet belt, which perpetuates this (partial) myth. In a way, it’s actually a good starting point to talk about DARPA. And really, who doesn’t love jet belts?

Ann:  Not one soul on earth who doesn’t love jet belts.  Am I right in remembering that DARPA’s motto is  High Risk, High Payoff?  Or maybe I’m remembering  its motto is Preventing Technological Surprise?  We need to cover these matters before I get to my really pointed and burning question: why doesn’t the jet belt set your pants on fire?

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The Last Word

March 6-10, 2017

This week at LWON:

If it feels to you as if the world is losing its collective mind, perhaps some a history lesson can clarify the current political climate – specifically, the history of the Renaissance. We may be living through another version of it, says my friend Chris.

What people are calling “de-extinction” doesn’t really reverse anything. So let’s stop doing the extincting – it’s irreversible, says Michelle.

Craig spends nights in the open air, surrounded by early Pueblo artifacts. He enjoys the cold more for the fact that he’ll one day miss it, whether this summer or even in the climate-altered winters to come.

Erik’s family history is a riot of clashing cultures and striving survivors. It’s exciting to consider that these intergenerational stories are far from over. This one continues with Erik’s son, who adds Mexico to the long list of nationalities in the Vance family.

Helen caught a rare glimpse of the back rooms in the National Museum of Natural History. She even heard the rattle of 4000-year-old scarab larvae encased in dung. They came from an Ancient Egyptian tomb and are presumably scuttling around now in some pharaoh’s afterlife.

Photo of thousand-year-old Utah cliff dwelling by Craig

Beetles, Time Travelers

Baseball-sized brown balls in a brown box

In the summer of 2011, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History was in the process of doing some bug relocation. Specifically, they were moving some of their beetles from the museum building downtown out to a storage facility in the suburbs—specifically, the non-plant-eating scarabs.

It was a lot of scarabs. The museum has a lot of bugs and a lot of them are beetles, and 696 drawers full of them were being moved. In the last cabinet, at the bottom, collections manager Floyd Shockley noticed an odd box—not any of the standard containers that the museum uses to store bugs.

Inside were the brown, dirty balls pictured above. An abandoned papier-mache project? Nuts? Hairballs?

None of the above. Shockley, who is a beetle guy, knew instantly what they were: poop.  Continue reading

Dirty Norwegians

Having a child changes a man. Perhaps not as much as it changes a woman but a fair bit. A friend of mine recently had his first kid and decided to take up hunting. He’s a successful nurse in a big-time hospital but somewhere deep inside him, he wanted to know he could provide meat for his wife and child.

Me, I got into genealogy. In my mind, I wanted to be able to tell my son who he is and who came before – to reach back through time and find our places in the unending line of history. I guess having a child has made me want to understand where he comes from.

What I found amazed me. The family I thought were Irish were actually Scottish colonizers – hated by the Irish. An ancestor’s half-brother married Henry VIII’s sister. A branch of my family even fought in the famous Appalachian feuds between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

But in this new era of immigrant distrust and isolationism, my favorite branch has become my “dirty Norwegians.” Continue reading

Holding the Last of Winter

You’ve noticed the cold starting to leave. The light has been strengthening, sun lifting every day, and the wind has lost some of its bitterness. Twenty-three and a half degrees of tilt to the planet, you can feel every degree.

Two mornings ago a blizzard hit where I live in Colorado. It was a fierce one with hundred-mile-an hour winds. Snow sprayed up the door frames and blasted in through cracks. As I closed the front door, stomping off the cold, I thought that one day very soon my arm would be out the window as I drove down the highway, crisp wind and warm sunlight, which happened to come yesterday, the day after the blizzard. Continue reading

Don’t Think of a Mammophant


Let’s talk about de-extinction. Actually, let’s not. Let’s talk about what the as-yet-unrealized technology known as “de-extinction” really is, which is the creation of hybrid organisms using genetic material from both extinct and extant species. Last month, a team of scientists announced that a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo—”more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits,” said the team leader—could become a reality “in a couple of years.”

The notion of resurrecting extinct species is fascinating—it’s one of the ultimate what-ifs—so it’s understandable that even this somewhat vague statement made international headlines. But let’s say these scientists succeed. Let’s say that in 2019 or thereabouts, they’ll be able to produce, in the laboratory, a viable elephant embryo containing some mammoth DNA. To be clear, that’s not a mammoth. It’s not even a mammoth embryo. There are no guarantees that this theoretical embryo would survive to adulthood, or be fertile, even in captivity. It’s even less likely that an organism that developed from this embryo could survive in existing habitats, or alongside existing species.

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