Imagined Life by Trefil & Summers

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Among travel books, what makes a masterpiece? Sure, we love the writer who describes a location or culture in stunning, heart-flipping prose. But what debt of thanks and praise do we owe the yarner who completely transports us to places we will never ever get to visit in our lifetime? Take, for instance, outer space…

trefil-summers-ImaginedLife2Trefil, James and Michael Summers. Imagined Life: A Speculative Journey Among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures, and Supergravity Animals. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2019. Print.

Ice-tunneling merfolk. Flying dragons on Super Earths. These are only a couple of the wondrous life forms the authors speculate on in their sweeping exploration of the universe’s exoplanets. For decades, astronomers hypothesized these planets must exist. Other stars, besides our sun, must have other planets circling them.

And then a few years ago, we discovered a few.

Then a few more.

Then many more.

And more and more.

Astrophysicists now estimate hundreds of trillions of exoplanets whirl around the universe as we speak—more than the number of stars!

This book reviews what we know so far. It then shares where and how astrobiologists search for life out there. Trefil and Summers then use biology, chemistry, and physics fundamentals to speculate on what formations life could assume on water worlds, ice spheres, Super Earths, and tidally locked Red Dwarfs. And before you ask—no, Red Dwarfs aren’t sunburned garden gnomes obsessed with surfing.

My favorite feature in the text has to be NASA’s retro-styled travel posters from their Exoplanet Travel Bureau. Each poster highlights an actual exoplanet plus its must-see sights and must-do activities available to human life forms. Posters also share fascinating scientific facts about the planet and how its discovery influences the trajectory of ongoing space research. (Ehem. My birthday is coming up in October if anyone is wondering what to get…)

Rarely has my travel bug been so buzzed. Viewing each poster is like downing a shot of rocket fuel! Reading this book only doubled the effect. As a relatively new and increasingly rugged Coloradan, I mentally packed my bags and readied gear. I was (and am) ready to hike, mountain bike, and camp on any of the Kepler 186 planets or the TRAPPIST-1 system.

As travel books go, this one is a standout gem. The authors present complex data and concepts clearly. Their tone is enthusiastic and engaging. They adhere to speculation without veering off into sensationalism. And throughout, they make one vital point tantalizingly clear: when we consider how life persists nearly everywhere on Earth, it’s hard to banish the possibility of life’s existence elsewhere out there.

A Wilder Time by William Glassley

When taught to love this Earth like a geologist, we appreciate and crave even the smell of rocks.

Glassley, William. A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Two geologist colleagues invite Glassley on a return visit to Greenland because a newly published research paper accuses them of misinterpreting data they published years ago. Their thesis: Greenland is but geologic scar tissue; the site of colossal tectonic subduction; a place where the earth slowly swallowed a mountain range that would have shadowed the Himalayas. Unless Glassley and the team go back to reassess their data, the scientific community may think them imbeciles.

Critique: As a writer dealing with a somewhat obscure topic, Glassley is a patient teacher. Readers steadily acquire complex geologic concepts and terminology as the book progresses.

My favorites: foehn (a strong warm wind forming on the downslope side of a geologic feature), palsa (a round mound of soil many feet across, rising out of a watery region), and pingo (a larger palsa, measuring hundreds of feet across).

As a writer brokering in passions on the page, Glassley is a master. He is to science prose what Byron is to poetry. Quite often, Glassley wallops readers with revelations like, “In Greenland, water and rock are consanguineous.” He is so deft at describing the grand, cyclical conversations between atoms, chemicals, gravity, and molecules which form not only continents, but also life.

Like the handsome Indiana Jones lecturing about archaeology, Glassley gets us swooning over a topic we didn’t know we could crush on so hard. He convinces us not just to study rocks, but to go so far as to smell them! Why? Because one day their atomic makeup will fold into our atomic makeup and feed our very thoughts, ideas, and dreams.

His superpower is to make the study of rocks something intimate, delicate; something blush-worthy to read about. Take, for example, Glassley’s nearly erotic description of the way foamy waves coax and massage all the pebbles on a beach to align. The bubbles charm the small stones to flatten together and form the kind of slope which water prefers to slide along. One pebble sits askew until the waves tickle it with foam. “One wave, one pebble, and the metronome of process registers one more click,” says Glassley.

This book, at its core, is a love poem to science. Glassley explains, “When Kai, John, and I return to our laboratories, we will describe much of what we have seen through equations that honor the observations and data we have collected.”

Wait–wait–wait! You mean equations aren’t just devious and maniacal forms of mathematical torture? They are devotional and even a tad spiritual?

Could somebody please get me a fresh college registration form? I think need another degree…in geology.

“Earth,” Glassley writes, “is the construct of wandering stardust, accreted from the atomic debris of supernovae and the elemental winds of unknown starts. The gentle fall of interstellar particles, the collisions of comets and meteors and frozen water, gave rise to our planet in a rush of cosmic artistry just over four-and-a-half billion years ago.”

In other words, our world derives from galactic erosion! Our home is but space tallus recombined!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to fill all my spiral notebooks with the equation: me+rocks=<3.

Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!

Journey by Starlight by Ian Flitcroft

With the holidays fast approaching, I’ll spend several posts sharing my top gift picks, fics, nonfics, and everything in between to titillate the book lovers, knowledge hunters, and idea crafters in your life.

Flitcroft, Ian. Journey by Starlight: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Illus. Britt Spencer. Long Island City, NY: One Piece Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: nonfiction graphic novel

Summary: Super-genius extraordinaire, Albert Einstein ushers the curious and the confused on a revelatory journey through the universe. Along the way he clears up those oft-pesky matters such as relativity, quantum mechanics, gravity, black holes, dark matter and anything else you likely forgot (or never learned) in school.

Critique: When I was in high school and college, I roamed feral with the artsy crowds. Creative types who could not tell an ion from an isotope. After a brutal public shaming in an algebra class, I avoided the deepest halls of science. Now, because the universe is a strange, through-the-looking-glass place, I work as a children’s writer focused mostly on…science.

Consequently, I am always on the watch for good resources. I falcon anything that illuminates, explains, and entertains. Swoop! Snatch! Mine!

I came across this book while researching the nuclear arms race. I intended to read only the parts related to my own project, but eagerly devoured the whole text, cover-to-cover. The graphic novel format welcomed me into the very halls I had previously skirted.

Technically, this book should be classified as nonfiction-ish. Of course Albert Einstein did not really serve as a science tour guide á la Neil deGrasse Tyson (but wouldn’t it have been nifty if he had?). Nonetheless, readers will allow the narrative conceit not only because the Einstein character Britt Spencer illustrates is so charming and funny, but also because the information presented is so engaging and clear. Credit for this feature goes to Dr. Ian Flitcroft who developed much of the books’ content on a popular blog by the same name.

By day, Flitcroft operated as a surgeon at a children’s hospital in Ireland. By night, he wrote. His knack for addressing young people shines in a style that is witty, trustworthy, and disarming. The terminology never meanders into jargon. He erodes complexities down to digestible fundamentals. He pokes fun, snarks, and teases.

I learned volumes from this book and have repeatedly returned to it as a quick and easy reference.  If you know a young person who is either an avid or a timid science fan, gift them this book. It will open doors that ought not ever close.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

While we tend to chuck microbes into a general “yuck” pile of germs in need of disinfecting, truth is, only a slim minority of species are harmful. The rest are not just beneficial, but essential to the ebb and flow of life on this planet. For instance, how did life evolve into multi-cellular, diverse creatures like birds, bugs, hippos, and humans? Because two kinds of microbes teamed up to make finding food and gene replication more successful. In other words, life as we know it would not exist without these critters.

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acclaimed science writer, Ed Yong shares the latest research spewing out from studies on the tiniest creatures in the universe. As it turns out, small is by no means insignificant. Microbes—also known as germs—influence everything from global weather, our DNA, and even our choices and thoughts! Get ready for a real invasion of the body snatchers!

(Hint: This book makes for an excellent companion text to John Green’s latest YA knock-out, Turtles All the Way Down!)

Critique: Microbes are multitudinous, both in your body and throughout the planet. Every millimeter of every tooth in your mouth houses an entirely unique population of microbes designed to do something useful in your mouth. Same goes for every millimeter of your gums! Don’t forget your fingers, toes, armpits, and genital regions. But microbial significance goes way beyond teeth and testicles! Animals need the chemical byproducts of microbes—called odors, pheromones, and scents—to communicate, navigate, and survive.

Also, it may interest you to know that the human DNA chain does not contain all the instructions we need to shape our bodies to maturity. We borrow instructions from the DNA of microbes in our environment. In other words, your basic DNA is programmed to provide you with intestines, but it is not programmed with instructions for how those tubes ought to bend and fold in order to fit inside your body. Those directions come from a particular microbe. Plenty of other organisms copy this tactic because it is a smart, efficient way to reliably funnel genes over many generations.

Oh, oh! Budding research suggests that where you decide to live or places you yearn to travel or the foods you crave or the partners you attract may all be the result of your microbes spurring you to go out get new kinds of microbes. This theory has some scary implications; first and foremost, that who you think you are may be an illusion. You are not a single identity, but a composite of trillions—an inner horde of bugs that sometimes choruses in unison.

Yong may not have Rebecca Skloot’s ability to weave live action scenes through hunks of exposition (indeed, he loses as many of these threads as he begins), but his descriptions of complex scientific concepts and microbial functions are so engaging and accessible, the reader won’t actually want those woven scenes getting in the way. The best indicator of how good this book is lies in how I geeked out for weeks after I read it. Cocktail party small talk, trips to a public restroom, inviting friends over for dinner, geshundeiting a sneezing stranger, work meetings, waiting in line at the post office—heck, even this blog post—became one more opportunity to share yet another fascinating tidbit of mind-blowing microbial information.