Georgia On My Mind

April 29:  I recently visited Atlanta, Georgia, my first time in that state (not counting the unplanned layover trying to get home after a girls’ weekend in Fort Myers, FL). Some of you may know it as the birthplace of Coca-Cola; others of you may know it as the home to CNN; still others, especially if you’re a fan of USA Gymnastics, will remember it as the host of the 1996 Olympics. I’m here for the 2012 Astrobiology Science Conference, and I have to say that conferences are even more enjoyable when I don’t have to worry about presenting my research – more time to absorb the science, more opportunities to socialize with colleagues and friends, less time to fret, and no time to worry about being prepared!

Some pretty interesting things happened at this conference.  On Monday afternoon, a panel of scientists informed us about the Mars Science Lab, better known as MSL, scheduled to land on Mars on August 5, 2012. They told us about the instruments, the science that’s going to be done, and the significance of the results (fingers crossed).  In brief, the mission will help to determine Mars’ habitability, because the spacecraft was designed to assess whether Mars ever had an environment able to support small life forms.  I know some of the scientists involved and since this project has taken years to develop, it’s nice to finally see the end in sight.  All of the panelists agreed that just having MSL land safely would be the “jackpot moment” of the mission. At over 1 ton in weight (the heaviest Mars lander yet), it will be lowered slowly to the surface by a crane.  Did I say “fingers crossed” already?

Monday night, the NASA Astrobiology Institute hosted the Astrobiology FameLab finals, in which graduate students (11 finalists) had three minutes or less to explain a scientific concept to the audience.  The competition was hyped as choosing the “next Carl Sagan”, and the winner here will compete at an international competition in the UK.  Most of the talks were very good and I commend all of the speakers for having the guts to get up and talk about their passions.  I was very impressed with most of the finalists.  Here’s hoping that the NASA winner can compete well on an international stage.

Nichelle Nichols, i.e., Lt. Uhura, hosted the competition and introduced the finalists. I’m not a huge fan of Star Trek – in fact, I’m not a fan at all of Star Trek – but I was so excited to see Lt. Uhura that I spilled my wine all over my program book!  Funny, huh?  A long-time fan of all things space-related, she was the first African American woman to be cast into a non-stereotypical role, and she became the first African-American to place her handprints in front of Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre. While the judges were making their decision about who would be the winner of the FameLab competition, Nichelle enlightened us with the story of how she was cast as Uhura.  She had been living in Europe when Gene Rodenberry called her up and told her she needed to audition. After much hemming and hawing, she agreed to go to Hollywood, and at her audition, she was asked to read the part of Spock.  Why Spock?  There was no role of Uhura yet, but it was created for her when everyone was so impressed by her audition and personality.

"Tell me about this Spock character", said Ms. Nichols. "What's she like?"


On Tuesday, a second panel described to us the latest updates regarding the Kepler spacecraft and its search for extrasolar planets.  Over 2100 “candidate planets” have been identified, and the consensus among these scientists was that it’s just a matter of time until we find an Earth-like planet in a habitable zone.

Exoplanet Panel Discussion. L to R: Eric Ford (U-Florida), Victoria Meadows (U-Washington), Sara Seager (MIT), Dirk Schulze-Makuch (Washington State), and David Grinspoon (Denver Museum of Nature and Science).


As if all of this information wasn’t enough to tease a room full of scientists, we had the extreme pleasure of having Dava Sobel share with us some excerpts from her play about Copernicus, a man obsessed with the crazy idea that planets orbit around the Sun.

Reading from "Copernicus". L to R: Dava Sobel, Brendan Mullen, and David Grinspoon.

Two days at AbSciCon and my notebook and my brain were full of new ideas, for my research and for my classes.  I take away momentum to write as well as a rediscovered excitement about Astrobiology and the search for life on other planets.  My class lecture notes will be updated with the latest and greatest news from MSL and Kepler, and I look forward to sharing this information with the Phys 105 students in the fall. 
On my way out of Atlanta, I admired the fascinating stone sculptures by artists from Zimbabwe on display at the Atlata Airport.  This one is my favorite:

"Traveling Family", by Amos Supuni.

Stay tuned, and keep your eyes out for space science news – these next few months will be full full full of exciting discoveries that may just question what we think we understand about Mars, about planetary systems, and possibly even about life as we know it.

Other links:
Mars Science Lab – JPL webpage
Buy Sobel’s book about Copernicus
Why Dava fell for Copernicus – New Scientist article