Infecting Students with Enthusiasm For Astrobiology

The virus that causes COVID-19 offers a teachable moment for thinking beyond our earthly limits

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora (2015, Orbit Books), a starship undertakes a multi-generation voyage to the star Tau Ceti to colonize the moon of one of the planets.  The science-fiction book details the challenges the crew and colonists experience living in the controlled and limited environment of the spacecraft.  Upon reaching their destination, numbers of colonists disembark for the surface of the moon, named Aurora.  At first, the environment on Aurora appears promising, until colonists begin to die from exposure to a previously undetected prion.  The colony institutes a strict quarantine, denying people who had gone to the moon’s surface access to the ship.  This causes a schism, with some deciding to remain in an attempt to terraform Aurora, and the rest opting to make the long return trip to Earth.  One remaining colonist who went to the surface is forced to remain quarantined in his shuttle for the entire voyage back to Earth.  During the trip, those on the spacecraft lose contact with those who remained on Aurora.

While not a perfect analog for the current COVID-19 pandemic and the need to quarantine those exposed to the coronavirus, Robinson’s novel does have some parallel themes.  I’m referring particularly to the need to quarantine people exposed to a previously unknown and undetected novel infectious agent and the deadly nature of the infection.  While prions and viruses are not the same, the characteristic they share is a lack of “normal” cellular structures, which makes them both not fit the standard definition of “living.”  (The main difference between them is a prion is a bundle of misfolded proteins, and a virus contains either RNA or DNA.)  

We can use this idea of viruses and prions not quite fitting the standard definition of life to investigate interesting questions asked in astrobiology. For example, what is the definition of life? Under what conditions can life exist? Where does life exist? How can we detect life?  

The last question is particularly apt in that without normal cellular processes and their waste products, both viruses and prions are potentially undetectable when searching for life on distant worlds.  In Aurora, for example, the colonists did not recognize the contagion even though they meticulously screened the environment for any signs of life — a point showing how little we actually know about life and its requirements.  We may not have the ability to recognize it when we find it.  In many ways, we are stuck in an Earth-centered point of view, where everything has to conform to our human expectations.  While viruses and prions push on the boundaries of what we consider life, they can also help us understand the conditions under which life propagates.

Using the coronavirus as a starting point, educators can engage students in interesting and relevant investigations of the nature of life.  Since we don’t yet have any examples of life beyond Earth, stories such as Aurora can provide a speculative venue for students to examine in their investigations of living systems.  Astrobiology is not a distinct science itself, integrating ideas and methodologies from other fields: chemistry, astrophysics, meteorology, oceanography, geology, biology.  This integrated nature of astrobiology lends itself to inclusion in a variety of classes, including cross-curricular efforts as students investigate the nature of societies and migration. Such lessons can enhance  students’ ability to communicate effectively, both persuasively and in their descriptions of the science underlying human exploration of space.

As a society, we seem to anticipate our first contact with alien life will take the form of intelligent creatures appearing on Earth, or our making contact with them either through our radio telescopes, or on a first mission beyond our solar system.  This anticipation also relates to the ongoing fascination with UFOs, including recent releases of government documents some people suggest confirms the presence of craft not of this planet in our skies.  It’s a hubris of sorts to anticipate there are creatures like us flying around the galaxy, and taking special interest in what is taking place on Earth.  While the physical geocentric model of the universe was put to rest hundreds of years ago, we maintain a psychological, sociological and spiritual geocentrism where Earth and humanity occupy a privileged position in the greater cosmos.  

It is far more likely the first life we discover beyond Earth will bear more similarities to the coronavirus than ET.   Microorganisms dominated life on Earth for most of its history, and there is every reason to think distant worlds will have experienced a similar evolutionary history.   The coronavirus is teaching us the realm of microorganisms still controls much of what takes place in Earth’s biosphere, including human activities.  To place these forms of life, including those on the boundaries of life, in a greater context may take an astrobiologist to explain. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a teachable moment for learners to explore the nature of life, with considerations for human expeditions to distant worlds, all through the lens of astrobiology.

Image: Astrobiology at NASA

This post originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

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Looking Behind Abstractions

Very large and very small numbers are abstractions.  Frequently they are useful in illuminating some natural phenomena, however many people have a difficult time comprehending such numbers.  We don’t usually deal with these sorts of numbers in our everyday lives.  When a particular phenomenon is very large or very small, is taking place a vast distance from us, or there are a great many objects involved, scaling is often used to make it easier to think about them.  In my work, we are always seeking better tactics to represent phenomena in concrete ways, to make them accessible and understandable.   In these cases, a number may represent a measurable quantity.  We strive to connect people to the phenomenon under investigation as something they can experience, and how numbers are tools to help us know something about what is taking place.

There are a lot of numbers in the news lately having to do with the current COVID-19 pandemic.  And for many people, it is difficult to relate to what the person using the numbers is trying to convey.  There are so many different interpretations, and misinterpretations, it makes it difficult to trust what we hear and read.  The basic message is, for the most part, large numbers are bad.  But what do those numbers really mean?  We can hardly conceive of these numbers, let alone they are a result of people infected with something so small it will pass through tiny gaps in the fiber of our masks.  If we do what is recommended to protect ourselves, it is possible we won’t have a direct connection with anyone who ended up adding to the very large numbers.  Until we know someone who has the virus, the numbers are only abstractions, they are not concrete enough for us to relate to let alone grieve for the many who have lost their lives.

It brings up a distinction noted in a different context in a previous post.  Most often, numbers are used in transactions we engage in during our daily lives.  In this context we might have a better handle on the use of very small and very large numbers, particularly when they apply to financial transactions.  We seek out transactions bringing us and our families the greatest benefit, either now or at some specified time in the future.  The numbers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are frequently used to turn the human toll into a series of transactions.  Perhaps not done intentionally, however it does remove us from having a sense of relationship with those who are suffering because of the pandemic.  In this case the use of large numbers may serve to erect barriers between us.  At times numbers are seemingly used to obscure or obfuscate, an effective strategy because of the difficult time many people have with the abstraction.

The current administration, and the former extractive industry lobbyists and executives who are in charge of the nations lands and parks, are apparently taking advantage of the distractions of the COVID-19 pandemic to push through a different kind of transactional agenda.  They see no economic benefit in clean air, water, or undeveloped swaths of land.  If anything, they have the view their protection gets in the way of economic activity.  An example of this is how, reversing a previous ruling, the EPA has signed off on development of the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.  Plans are for a massive open pit mine within the headwaters of rivers running into Bristol Bay, the richest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

The large numbers involved in explaining the plans involved for the Pebble Mine are abstractions, and really only describe the transactional manner the mining industry and current administration see the beautiful and fragile landscape of southwestern Alaska.  They have no relationship with the land, or the animals and plants which live there.  Without going there to walk among the mountains and streams it is a challenge to make what might happen concrete, and not an abstraction of numbers.  The numbers tell us little of the phenomena associated with the impact of mining on the land, air and water.

Imagine if you took a standard aquarium, and removed the little colored pebbles at the bottom.  In their place, put crushed ore rocks from a mine such as the Pebble.  The ore in these rocks are sulfide minerals, with some sulfate and oxide minerals to go along with the host rocks.  The aquarium has a system circulating water and air, bubbling up through the rocks at the bottom.  The interaction of water and air with the ore minerals will soon change the characteristics of the water, turning it toxic, eventually killing the fish in the tank.  While you might think this is only an experiment, there is a real life example of this.  An open pit mine in Butte, Montana is in rocks similar to those in the Pebble prospect.  When they stopped major mining activities, they also turned off the pumps keeping groundwater from accumulating in the bottom of the pit.  Within a few years, the pit turned into a lake.  In several infamous incidents, flocks of geese attempted to land on the lake, and promptly died from the toxicity of the water.  The prolonged contact between water and the ore body had leached toxic compounds out of the rocks, creating a poisonous stew.  The Berkeley Pit is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, and they use noise making machines to discourage waterfowl from using the lake.

6.2.1981 Red Dog Creek, Deadlock Mtn.

Red Dog Creek in June 1981, Deadlock Mountain in the distance. The ore body of lead-zinc sulfides is exposed on the surface. The creek and rocks are stained red from minerals dissolved in the water. The water is toxic, and does not support fish.

This is the potential future for the Pebble Mine after the ore runs out, in a place far wetter with a shallower water table than in Butte, Montana.  Every mine has a finite life span of economic feasibility for extracting minerals.  Unlike a salmon fishery, which is a living, reproducing system, and would continue to provide jobs, income, and sustenance well into the future.

Grief is an emotion associated with loss, and with relationship.  We may grieve for a friend or family member who contracts the coronavirus, but not for the other 150,000 and counting people who have died in this country during the pandemic.  Their death is an abstraction.  Without having visited the Pebble prospect and developing a relationship with the land and its life, it remains an abstraction making it difficult for people to grieve the loss when the mine is developed.

About 600 miles northwest of the Pebble prospect is the Red Dog open pit mine.  A Canadian company owns and operates the mine, the ore is processed in British Columbia, and the metals sold to customers in Europe and Asia.  The mine is in Alaska.  The products and profits from the mine are not staying in the country where the mine is located.  A beautiful, remote place is gone forever to support other countries.  Once the ore runs out in another decade, they will leave behind a big hole in the ground, a pile of discarded rock, and an artificial lake filled with a toxic broth.  This is the future for virtually every open pit mine, including the Pebble Mine.  All the more reason to grieve for what once was there, and to fight and advocate for a new administration to again reverse the EPA’s ruling, denying development of the Pebble Mine.  Knowing a place removes it from the realm of abstraction making it possible to truly grieve.

Red Dog today…


The EPA says the Red Dog Mine is one of the worst industrially polluted sites in the country. Opened in 1989, the mine is the largest producer of zinc worldwide and is expected to stay open until 2031. Credit: Robert Cummings/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The way it was…

6.2.1981 Red Dog prospect

Red Dog prospect before the mine, June 1981. The gray rocks just above the helicopter and stretching to the left is the ore body on the surface.

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Cultural perspective governs our approach to nature

As a tool for artists, perspective made its appearance consistently sometime in the early 1400s.  It was not long before both linear and aerial perspective were utilized, giving depth and dimension to the scene, providing a more realistic view of the world.  For many years I have pondered the relationship of art to science, and cultural change in general.  Is it art that drives change within culture, or are the artists merely reflecting new ways of thinking and giving them manifestation?  As scientists, it seems we would like to have science drive the changes in perception, however I suspect it is the artists who are leading us towards a more realistic way of seeing nature.  Of course, this may break down with the modern abstract and minimalist schools of art.  Though the roots of these predated the now pervasive quantum physics, and its emphasis on probability, and uncertainty.  So, perhaps the artists were a step ahead, preparing our perception for the coming change in scientific paradigms.

Teaching and learning are cultural processes.  As such, they do not express themselves the same way in every society.  Just as individual artists have different ways of expressing themselves, so too do cultures.  Many times, this is evident within individual classrooms, as learners from diverse backgrounds bring with them different ways of knowing, and responding, not only to the culture in which they find themselves, but also to the natural world they are studying in science courses.  At times it is difficult as educators to recognize and respect the differences, particularly because we tend to give preference to a rigid idea of what it means to learn science.  As with the rest of our society, our western European roots are well established in not just the science we engage in, but also in how we teach, and learn in the formal classroom.

Many students, particularly those from indigenous cultures, have a different approach to nature.  While students brought up in a western European style culture take a taxonomic approach focusing on the properties of individual parts, learners from indigenous cultures take a more nuanced approach, emphasizing relationships within systems.  Cultures taking a relational approach to nature also tend to have a rich history of storytelling, bringing together different aspects of nature to create a coherent narrative.

In some ways, these two approaches to nature are at the heart of every interaction and controversy having to do with conservation of natural resources.  In these cases, the approaches are manifested in a tension between seeing nature as transactional versus relational.  The transactional approach to nature is rooted in the viewpoint it is there for humans to make use of, to always think of the value we extract from either the place itself or the underlying resources. The relational approach recognizes deep connections to nature, with humans intimately connected to the Earth and the other lifeforms who also call it home.  History is rife with the tension between these two viewpoints, with many members of the dominant western European culture crossing over to advocate for the more nuanced, relational approach to nature, resulting in legislation such as the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, the Antiquities Act, and others.  Of particular note are those who advocate the most strongly for the transactional viewpoint continue to fight for the exclusion, and rescission of any protections placed on land and species in an effort to add them to the inventory of places available for resource extraction.

In so many ways there is little difference between the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park, Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, Bears Ears in Utah, Standing Rock,  the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Tongass National Forest, and the summit of Mauna Kea.  In every instance, not only is there a tension between a transactional vs. relational approach to the land, but there is also one between the dominant western European, and an indigenous culture.

For an educator, providing a transformational experience for learners focused on relationships within systems can create a greater awareness of perspective than when focusing on individual elements.  Many times such an experience requires a slowing down, to decrease the sensory load, allowing nuances to emerge of how component parts interact in relationship.  The creation or appreciation of art can provide such an experience, and park rangers in their interpretive practice do this on a regular basis as they tap into visitors’ affective realm.  While a seemingly ordinary venue may provide such an experience, many times it is in the most spectacular places where we feel closest to nature.  Indigenous peoples certainly recognized how some places evoke a greater feeling of relationship and perspective than others.  Once such a place is gone, it is no consolation to point to it as an object lesson of what could have been.

Slowing down, one might sense the interconnectivity within a forest, or observe the sophisticated dynamics within groups of communal animals.  To truly see the night sky may require stepping away from the eyepiece, taking in the depth of the vistas before you.  We just might discover the truth John Muir knew: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

2011 074-2

A version of this post originally appeared as the Education Matters column in the Fall 2019 edition of Mercury magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed most everyone’s behavior. Particularly when it comes to personal protection. Unfortunately, people are generally inconsistent in their practice of safe behavior to limit the spread of the coronavirus. On my regular walks around San Francisco, I would guess about two thirds of fellow walkers are using masks. Some wearers appear to have theirs on continuously, and others, including myself, replace them over our nose and mouth when approaching another. Many who do not wear masks, also make little effort to increase the distance between themselves and others upon close approach. Bicyclists, for the most part, are fairly good at wearing a mask, perhaps around two thirds of them. Runners, however, are relatively poor at wearing a mask, with maybe only about 20% of them wearing one.


One aspect of wearing a mask is what to do with it when you take it off. I probably now have around ten washable, fabric masks, which I reuse. Most of them have a pocket into which I place one of the commercial three-ply masks to increase their effectiveness. Those too are reusable, and stand up to light rinsing.

Many people, however, do not reuse their masks. Nor have they made an effort to dispose of them properly.  The prevalence of discarded masks in the environment is common to a diversity of neighborhoods, the most upscale, and those which struggle.

On some recent walks, I photographed upwards of 70-80 different masks I encountered along the streets and paths of San Francisco

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