C's bookshelf: read

The Peculiar
Maggot Moon
The City and the City
The Road
A Certain Slant of Light
The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Brown Girl in the Ring
Well Wished
The Innkeeper's Song
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
American Indian Myths and Legends
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Return of the King
The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers

C S Peterson's favorite books »

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Alien Life

By the time I was in fourth grade I had decided what I wanted to be when I grew up, an exobiologist.  I was elated by this decision.  I felt that the great question of my purpose in life had finally been settled.  It didn’t occur to me that it might be less than obvious to the other people in my world why this was such an obvious choice for my vocation, much less that others might not even know what exobiology was.  I told my two best friends and received only blank expressions.  I gave my most enthusiastic explanation, still blank faces. I thought my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Bannock, would provide a better reaction.  I told her, she was very enthusiastic and I was delighted.
            “Dinosaurs are one of my favorite things to study as well!” she said.
            I was crushed.  In desperation I even told my father, who pointed out that there wasn’t anything, actually, to study yet and probably wouldn’t be for some time.  I saw the sense in what he said and ran away to join the circus.  So ended my brief career as an exobiologist.

Now days we call the field Astrobiology and NASA has a whole institute devoted to the study of alien life.  O.K. we haven’t actually found any yet, BUT in the last twenty years we have found liquid water in the most unexpected places in our solar system and we have found life in some very unexpected places on our planet.  Now my eleven-year-old son has got the astrobiology bug (so to speak) and we recently went to listen to a current astrobiologist, Dr. Benner, give a lecture at the museum in Denver.

On the drive there my son and I talked about what life is, exactly, and tried to hammer out a simple definition.  To my delight Dr. Benner spent much of the first half of his lecture talking about the philosophy of science and the difficulty of constructing a theory of life without bias.  He handed out a number of rocks and asked the audience to determine which ones showed evidence of life.  He talked about the human propensity to look for patterns – and see patterns, even if no patterns really exist.  He talked about constructive belief and how that influences the design of experiments meant to look for life.  He talked about theories that operated under the assumptions that life must: metabolize oxygen or carbon dioxide, fix carbon, be a cell, have our kind of DNA, make protein, have a minimum volume.

Good scientists, he warned, must continually check themselves and each other, examining the sources of assumptions.  Thinking outside the box with integrity is very hard work.

The rest of the lecture was filled with wonders.  We have made so many amazing discoveries about life just on our own planet, past and present.  The quest of astrobiologists has spawned whole new fields: paleogenetics, synthetic biology, computational bioinformatics and the intense study of extreamophiles.  Experiments related to the search for life are on board many of the missions we plan to send off into space over the next fifty years.  Mars is exciting, of course, but so are moons I had never heard of in my fourth grade enthusiasm: Europa, Enceladus and Titan.  What a great time to be alive!

On the car ride home I was waxing philosophical, relating Plato’s parable of the cave and connecting it to the thoughts on the philosophy of science Dr. Brenner had shared.  I was really on a roll when my son interrupted me.
            “Mom,” he said, “I really like synthetic biology.  I think you should help me learn organic chemistry next.”
            I didn’t have the heart to tell him that organic chemistry was the only class I ever had to drop in college because I just couldn’t hack it.  Isn’t life ironic? I heard my mother’s voice: “I hope you have four just like you!”   

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Writer's Pit

Writing prompt from WFMAD (Write Fifteen Minutes a Day – Laurie Halse Anderson):

“What would it feel like if you weren’t dogged by this poisonous sense of inadequacy and failure?”

I am always so surprised when anyone shows interest or connection to my writing.  I reconnected with an old college professor a few years ago.  I went to college in the early 80’s.  I really admired this professor and always felt that my writing must be a chore for her to read.  All the other students were so effortlessly brilliant and witty.  I often felt slightly breathless at the end of a class, as if I had been running madly to keep up.  Now, thirty years later, my professor tells me that she kept a play I had written back then.  Not only that, but she had reread it the other day because it made her laugh (with me, not at me, you understand).  You could have knocked me over with a feather. 

I think if I had an iron clad guarantee that the writing would eventually come right, the screaming critic in my head would die.  I would be living each writing moment with faith in my own creative energy.  I would believe that ideas, words, the shape and flow would grow out of the initial muck.  Fear would be gone.  I would not feel the need to control the writing path with an iron will so that only well planned perfection flows from my pen – which means, in reality, that it never ends up touching the paper.

I’m the one who built this internal critic, this screaming banshee.  I built her out of fear and doubt.  So surely I have the power to banish her for fifteen minutes so I can scoop up some muck and spill it out onto paper.  Begone shrew!  Out I say!  I will write from a place of faith! Perhaps if I pan through it later I will find some flecks of gold, or not, no matter.  There is always more muck where that came from.  Writing, like laws and sausages, is not pretty to watch when it is being made.