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Inquiring Minds: An Interview with Astrobiologist David H. Grinspoon

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(The following is a guest post by Jason Steinhauer, a program specialist in the Library’s John W. Kluge Center, as part of the blog series, “Inquiring Minds.”)

Photograph by Henry Throop

American astrobiologist David H. Grinspoon began on November 1 as the inaugural Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at the Library’s John W. Kluge Center. This unique position was established through an interagency agreement between the Library of Congress and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) for research into the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe, and the societal and humanistic implications of such inquiry. The chair is named for Baruch S. Blumberg, late Kluge Center Scholars Council member, Nobel Laureate and founding director of the NAI.

Grinspoon is curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, widely published writer, and currently serves on the Science Team for the Curiosity Rover mission to Mars. 

Q: Tell us about what you’ll be researching at the Library of Congress.

A: My intention is to study the Anthropocene Era from an astrobiology perspective. The Anthropocene is the phrase that some scientists are using to refer to the geological era that is defined by human activity. It’s still controversial among geologists, as it acknowledges that we are having a global-scale impact on the Earth and looks at humans as a geological force. I intend to apply the perspective of astrobiology, which is a deep time way of looking at life on Earth, towards the question of the Anthropocene. What does the human phenomenon on Earth look like viewed from an interplanetary perspective?

Q: Can you explain astrobiology and deep time a bit?

A: Astrobiology is the science of life in the Universe. It’s an attempt to scientifically deal with the question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe, looking at the past of life, the present of life and the future of life. It’s an interdisciplinary study incorporating astronomy, biology and the Earth sciences. We’re studying our own history, but over a timescale of billions of years and including not just Earth but the other planets as well, which gives us more perspective on the possible stories and fates of worlds like our own.

Q: How does one become an astrobiologist?

A: Astrobiology is a new field. It draws on the heritage of exobiology. People come from a wide range of scientific backgrounds. My particular background is planetary science. I study how planets work. There’s been a growing sense of the need to include biology as an integral part of the way planets evolve. More recently I’ve been folding biology into my research about planetary history

Q: Were you always interested in outer space?

A: I was. I’m a child of Apollo. I was thrilled by the astronauts landing on the moon when I was in fourth grade. I was a science fiction geek from an early age, enthralled by the questions of life in the universe. As I got older I learned that space exploration was real. I wanted to get involved in that. I knew I wanted to be a scientist.  Now I’m on the science teams of spacecraft that are currently operating at Mars and Venus.  Living the dream!

Q: What are you most excited to look at in the Library of Congress collections?

A: I’m very excited to explore the papers of notable scientists. I’m going to integrate the history of science into my research, and so it’s exciting to be able to find primary material. Beyond that, astrobiology is such a multi-disciplinary field with elements of philosophy, history, theology and spirituality that can be folded into this study. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have the resources of the Library at hand.

Q: Part of your role will be to organize public events. What are the ways that the public can get involved in astrobiology?

A: Astrobiology is a great point of contact for science outreach. The public is naturally interested in extra-terrestrial life. Astrobiology provides an accessible point of access that leads to deeper questions. In the museum where I work in Denver, astrobiology has been a great way to bring the public interest into scientific questions. Here at the Library, through workshops and colloquia I hope to explore the boundaries of science and the humanities. How do we illuminate the meaning of human existence through our science and its philosophical and spiritual dimensions? Collaboration with others at the Library and in Washington makes this an ideal place to do that.

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