The week of December 6, 2015

One geek’s reluctant journey toward loving space

By Cynthia McKelvey

I am a science journalist. Or, as I like to see it, I’m a professional science nerd. My job is literally to geek out over science on the Internet—and get paid for it. I love science and I love my job, but I have a dark secret: I don’t love space.

Space should make my job easy. Everyone already loves space, so they love reading about it. Black holes? Awesome. New, potentially life-fostering exoplanets? Hell yeah. Up-close photos of Pluto for the first time? Totally. Evidence of the lymphatic system in the brain? Yawn.

But for me, that last story was more exciting than the multiple stories I wrote about the New Horizons probe visiting Pluto or the discovery of the “Earth 2.0” Kepler-452b exoplanet. I’m a biology nerd at heart. I’ve been obsessed with squid and cuttlefish since I was a kid. I can go on and on about how freaking awesome birds are. But to me, space is just a bunch of rocks and math.

A lot of people in my field really love space, though. So much that it’s almost exclusively what they cover. Space stories also seem to sell well to glossy magazines and online outlets alike. (We even had our own space issue at the Kernel.) I decided that perhaps I haven’t given space enough of a chance. So I set out on a journey, a personal quest, to fall in love with space. Here’s what happened.

Butterfly Nebula, NGC 6302 by Hubble telescope
Butterfly Nebula, NGC 6302 by Hubble telescope

The natural place to start, in my mind, was to plead to my friends and colleagues on Facebook. I asked them to tell me why they love space, and convince me I should love it. I thought I’d get one or two responses, but within an hour I was flooded with IMs, texts, and comments.

“You don’t ‘get’ space?!?!!?!!?!!?” texted my friend Michael. “ITS SPACE!”

I got some better stories than that, of course. One friend said that taking an astronomy course in college convinced her there is no god—but I’ve been convinced of that one for a while.

Later that week, I got into a conversation about space with my friend Phil. I told him I couldn’t understand why people were so enthralled with the grandiosity of space. He said the answer was in the word “space” itself. “We just looked up and it was so infinite and abysmal that literally the only word we could think of for it was ‘space.'”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “space” was used to describe the cosmos as early as the 1700s (or possibly the 1600s in Paradise Lost), but it didn’t become common in the vernacular until the 1890s.

But Phil’s point still stands. I hadn’t considered what a simple yet apt word “space” really was. On the other hand, his point highlighted my major disconnect with space. Where my friends on Facebook see romance and grandeur and Carl Sagan quotes, I see dust and cold and emptiness.

M82 by Hubble telescope
M82 by Hubble telescope

I figured the next step would be to reach out to fellow science writers who write about space. I contacted three people from my graduate program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I studied science communication. Two were former students, and the last was the program director.

First I spoke with Lisa Grossman, a friend and an editor at New Scientist. She said her fascination with space began in grade school, when she did a project about life in space. It grew as she continued her studies and got into science fiction. For her, it’s the “how we know” more than the “what we know” that draws her to astronomy—as well as how much is left to find out.

“I feel like we knew so much already about biology,” she said. When she was in college, thinking of an area of science to pursue, she said that she felt like biology was “done”—that we already knew pretty much everything there is to know. Of course now she knows that’s not true, but I understand the sentiment.

Seeing Pluto up close for the first time, for example, is an achievement more exciting and accessible to the average person than, say, inventing a new form of genetic modification using specialized DNA sequences found in certain bacteria. Pluto is there, like space, in all its grandeur and majesty, and it doesn’t demand specialized knowledge to understand it. You’re supposed to be able to just take it all in.

But even when I was watching the NASA press conferences on livestream, I didn’t feel the magic. I asked the program director, Robert Irion, to explain it to me. “It’s seeing a fuzzball become a world,” he said. “It’s the only time that will happen.”

That made space seem a bit more magical. But Rob is also from the Carl Sagan Cosmos era of space geeks. And that just doesn’t speak to me. I even rewatched Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot to see if it would spark anything and… nothing. It was interesting, but the magnificence of it all just felt too heavy-handed.

Lisa, and another friend, Adam Mann, had an alternative perspective.

“The wide-eyed, Carl Sagan-esque, ‘We’re all stardust,’ I’ve heard that line so many times it becomes cliché and banal and you’re like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, that’s true,’” said Adam, a former staffer at Wired and now a full-time freelancer.

“We have all these ideas that these explorers were daring and adventurous… No, it’s very, very, very deadly out there.”

“I wish we science writers would stop writing Carl Sagan over and over,” he said. But he added it’s hard not to write about space that way. If he could write a book, “My title would be ‘Space Is Cold and Dark and Is Going to Kill You.’ It’s not a romantic place. We have all these ideas that these explorers were daring and adventurous… No, it’s very, very, very deadly out there.” Lisa reminded us of the cosmic indifference waiting us outside our safe blue globe: “[The universe] doesn’t care who you are and what you want.”

That seemed more up my alley. That, to me, was always how I understood space. A big, cold, empty place where we are very much alone, even if the law of large numbers says that we can’t be alone. For now, we’re alone. Maybe I feel that way because I’m cynical about making contact with extraterrestrial life. Or perhaps because I am not nor ever have been spiritual or religious.

While Rob, Adam, and Lisa all reassured me that it was perfectly OK not to love space, I pressed on with my quest anyway.

Carina Nebula by Hubble telescope
Carina Nebula by Hubble telescope

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I made the trip up the long, winding road to Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, California.

The only exhibit at the science center that really grabbed me was the one about space travel. There was an installation where you could try out an exercise machine designed to keep astronauts from losing too much muscle—appealing to my interest in biology. The contraption was sort of like football shoulder pads attached to cables, and you had to use your legs to push yourself against the tension in the cables. It wasn’t easy.

The sheer amount of human ingenuity that it takes to get into space is nothing short of astonishing. It takes teams of really smart people just to figure out how astronauts can take a whiz in space. Teams of people.

Not to mention the sheer terror of it all. In one room, they had an old space capsule—the piece of the ship that would detach in case of emergency, orbit around the Earth, and then hopefully re-enter at just the right angle so that the three astronauts cramped inside wouldn’t burn up in the atmosphere.

Thinking of it now still makes my stomach knot up. It humanized space for me. I could feel myself closing in on the space bug, but I wasn’t sure if it would bite me even if I found it. So I kept going.

NGC 2074 by Hubble telescope
NGC 2074 by Hubble telescope

At Rob’s suggestion, I reached out to an astronomy professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz. He is not only a great speaker, but he also devotes much of his time to outreach education. Before we talked, I didn’t quite realize just how precious gold really was. Gold, and other metals like silver and platinum, apparently aren’t very easy to come by.

“We believe that in order to produce [gold], we need extreme, extreme conditions,” Ramirez-Ruiz said. Conditions as extreme as the collision of two really massive stars. Basically you need a lot of energy to create these very heavy metals. But that’s not the cool part.

As a biology major, you learn that you’re made up of more than meat. In order to run properly, you need elements like potassium, calcium, and sodium. Strangely, though, the subject of gold never came up in class. But according to Ramirez-Ruiz, we all have a little gold in us. Moreover, gold isn’t evenly spread throughout the universe. And, like gold, other life-sustaining metals are created in similarly catastrophic events that are relatively rare. In that context, does that mean life can only exist in these little metallic pockets? And is life a really natural part of the universe? Does it work in cycles like the carbon cycle here on Earth?

Things are finally starting to get interesting, for me at least.

Horsehead Nebula by Hubble telescope
Horsehead Nebula by Hubble telescope

It’s not just abstract biology that interests me, if there is such a thing. Life—that’s what interests me. And out there in the cold dark of the universe, there are planets, billions upon billions of them. That’s a lot, so surely there must be some other spots in the universe where the stars aligned to create life. Right?

The Fermi Paradox then asks, well if that’s the case, why haven’t we met any intelligent life yet?

Personally, I’ve always been fine with the idea that perhaps we truly are the only life in the universe. Not because I think that we’re special, just that it happened that way. But people devote their lives to looking for extraterrestrial life, and they do so in a very systematic and scientific way.

The researchers at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute have come a long way in figuring out where we might find life in the universe and how to make contact.

“What we’re doing is looking for evidence of some technology that modifies its environment in a way that we can remotely sense over vast distances over the stars,” said Jill Tarter, the Bernard Oliver Chair of the SETI Institute.

But “we can’t even be inclusive in that statement because, in truth, the tech that’s most detectable might be technology that we ourselves haven’t invented yet and wouldn’t recognize until we make that invention. So we’re stuck with living in the 21st century and knowing what we know.”

That doesn’t stop them from looking, though. And there’s a lot of space to comb through. But why bother? I asked. What’s the point?

“When you observe a particular phenomenon, and you only have one of them, that’s the first one you found. You don’t know whether indeed that’s a unique phenomenon or there are many that you just haven’t detected yet,” she said. “But the moment you find number two, then you know there are many.”

In other words, it’s about proving not only are we not alone, but we are in good company. If we find evidence of life anywhere else, then it’s likely to be abundant in the universe, Tarter said.

Before I set out on this journey, I thought of biology and astronomy as separate realms. Though it took a complex and delicate chain of events to create the conditions for life here on Earth, I still felt a disconnect between everything that happened before life, and everything that happened after.

Now life seems more like it could be part of a cycle of the universe. Not to get all Carl Sagan-y, but maybe life didn’t just arise coincidentally in the universe, but it’s a necessary part of some larger process we don’t know yet. That’s pretty cool.

I don’t know if that means that I’ll now love writing space stories. My appreciation for space and astronomy is certainly greater than it was, but only time will tell if that will translate into an enthusiasm for the relative minutiae of astronomic discoveries. But I get it now, I really do. I get what all you crazy nerds think is so great about space.

Illustration by J. Longo |Hubble telescope images via HubbleSite