Inquiring Minds: David Grinspoon Reflects on His Tenure at Library of Congress

(The following is a story written by Jason Steinhauer of the John W. Kluge Center for the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)

Photo by Shealah Craighead

David Grinspoon expected an office inside the Library of Congress to be a great opportunity to write and research. How it would enable him to shape the debate on the future of our planet – that he did not anticipate.

“It’s been incredible. A dream-come-true. Unbelievable,” the outgoing Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology said recently when asked about his yearlong residence at The John W. Kluge Center.

“The community of scholars at the Kluge Center has surprised me,” said Grinspoon, whose tenure ended Oct. 31. “You want to hide in your office and write, but in the center people are working on fascinating projects that have unexpected synergies with yours.

“A scholar says, ‘Have you read this?’ and it turns out to be invaluable to your research. The contact with other scholars has been so stimulating and so fruitful.”

The Library collections and staff proved another surprise.

“The Library has everything a scholar could want,” Grinspoon said. “But the people who navigate that – they perform wizardry, digging things out that I didn’t know existed.”

Grinspoon cited as an example the philosophical writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Soviet rocket scientist and pioneer of astronautic theory – and an important source in Grinspoon’s research.

“Tsiolkovsky had writings related to how we would evolve and transcend Earth,” Grinspoon said. “But everyone I contacted said the writings were only in Russian. I mentioned this to Peg Clifton, one of the science librarians, and a week later English translations, books, pamphlets and theses started showing up in my office.

“I now have a half a shelf in my office of Tsiolkovsky philosophy in English. That seemed miraculous and encapsulates what’s so great about working here.”

The greatest impact has been Grinspoon’s ideas. Grinspoon’s research has been astrobiological investigation into the Anthropocene Era, the name given by some scientists to the current era in the Earth’s history wherein humans are the key drivers of geological and climatic change. It’s a controversial topic, involving issues of climate change, evolution and the future of human life on the planet.

Astrobiology, Grinspoon said, brings an important perspective to the debate.

“Astrobiology is the scientific study of life in universe,” Grinspoon said. “Another way to say it is that astrobiology is about the relationship between life and planets. If you look at it that way, the Anthropocene is an interesting phase. It’s a fundamental change in the relationship between life and Earth. Life has always perturbed Earth, but are we now fundamentally transforming it? Studying the Anthropocene helps us answer what happens to complex life on planets, and what challenges life faces if it is to continue.”

The longevity of human life has been a central theme of discussion at the Kluge Center during Grinspoon’s tenure.

Throughout the year, he invited scientists and scholars to the center to confer on the Anthropocene. As astrobiology chair, he lectured at the Library of Congress, NASA headquarters, NASA Goddard Research Center, the Philosophical Society of Washington, the Carnegie Institute, the National Academy of Sciences and The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

His research at the center was cited by the New Yorker Elements, New York Times DotEarth blog, Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate and Astrobiology Magazine.

And, on Sept.12, he convened scientists, scholars, science-fiction authors and journalists in a daylong symposium to discuss the longevity of human civilization. The event was attended by 150 people and live-tweeted more than 700 times around the world.

Grinspoon also met with U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, in a relationship brokered by the Kluge Center and the Congressional Relations Office.

“It’s been enlightening,” Grinspoon said of the conversations. “I’m working on a perspective, not policy, which I think makes it easier to converse. I’m working on ideas about humanity and how we need to engage with our planet and fellow humans. We as scholars can engage in a less-threatening way on the big-picture questions facing Members of Congress. I like to think that can percolate down into the kinds of decisions policymaker have to make.”

The big-picture questions are where Grinspoon is turning his focus.

“We’ve entered a new era in the geological evolution of the Earth,” he said. “We’re not just another species. Our presence is a significant perturbation, a fundamental change in the way the planet is operating. We’re managing this planet. But we don’t really know how to manage a planet.”

Grinspoon said it’s analogous to waking up and realizing you’re at the wheel of a truck you don’t know how to drive.

“We better learn, or we’ll drive ourselves off the road,” he said.

His ideas include fostering more global decision-making and encouraging more long-term thinking. But he stressed he’s advocating a mindset, not policy.

“I’m trying to express an informed perspective on how the human race needs to see itself,” he said. “I’ve become more optimistic during this year. There’s a global community that is slowly evolving that may bring us to be where we need to be. I’m eager to see where we go from here.”

As where Grinspoon does go from here?

“I want to keep doing space research and comparative climatology,” he said. “But the year here has made me more focused on Earth and how to solve our problems. I want to try to be helpful in a more direct way. I want to align space and planetary science to ensure human survival.”

The Library previously caught up with Grinspoon when he began his research at the Kluge Center. You can read about it here

3 Comments

  1. Ronald Starking
    November 4, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Are the Tsiolkovsky writingswritings, in Engish, available to US citizens?

  2. Anna Martina Sodari
    January 8, 2014 at 12:47 am

    hola, david,

    i just listened to the sagan lecture you gave via jon lomberg’s post on facebook. in 1996, i painted two swan lake ballerinas, maria tall chief and alicia alonso. i painted them in belt of venus colors. their tutus look each look like a galaxy:-) that wasn’t planned, it just happened with the happy water colors. i am glad you are working with the legislators, they desperately need inspiration and space is a great direction to point them in, our future/past. i think the indigenous people of our planet have great intuition, extra sensory perception, there. as they educate themselves, they are making interesting connections. my mom, from a small pueblito in sonora, mexico, once told me when we spent the night in a cabin in ramsey canyon, here, that ‘when this universe dies, it just becomes the next universe’, pretty profound for a third grade mexican education, i thought. i didn’t know those were belt of venus colors when i painted the ballerinas. but something in my brain must have known. i am part yaqui and apache and the european goulash that is mexico, spanish, french, german . . . every culture has something of great substance to contribute to the future of planet earth. i am curious to see all of the submissions that jon will get for the new horizons message to create our ‘selfie’. i think there will be many surprises in store, especially to see what the third world countries have kept of our modern world and what they have dropped by the wayside. i live on social security disability and we tend to be minimalistic. i do, at least. we keep those things that are really useful. hope 2014 got off to a good start for you. may it bring you many blessings, best, anna martina

  3. Corin Goodwin
    May 29, 2014 at 12:34 am

    Wish I could attend in person… looking forward to a recording or livestream!

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