5 December 2012

AGU 2012: Days 1 and 2 Highlights

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Greetings! It’s been a busy first two days of AGU, and it’s impossible to convey it all, but here are a few highlights:

Monday morning was my poster presentation, so that prevented me from seeing very many talks. I did stop by the Mars talks long enough to hear ChemCam team member Darby Dyar give a talk summarizing the many challenges involved in getting quantitative numbers out of LIBS data, especially for hydrogen. Nothing new to me, but a good primer for those in the audience who might wonder why we use strange multivariate methods to analyze LIBS spectra.

After the morning session, I went to hear Ira Flatow from NPR talk about how “Science is Sexy”. Many people enjoyed his talk but I was a bit disappointed. It was basically “Ira Flatow’s favorite science-related YouTube videos”.¬†From Flatow’s talk, I rushed over and crammed into the standing-room-only MSL session, where it was fun to see some of my plots make an appearance in the ChemCam talk.

After the MSL-fest was over, I went and camped out in the “Planetary Habitability” session. My favorite talk of the session was by David Grinspoon, who discussed how some people are saying that humans have had such an influence on our planet that we are in a new geologic era dubbed the “Anthropocene”. Grinspoon suggested 4 categories of global change: Natural disasters, biologically induced change, inadvertent changes, and intentional changes. Natural disasters are things that would happen regardless of whether there is life on the planet (e.g. impacts). Biologically induced change would be something like the transition to an oxygen-rich atmosphere on Earth. “Inadvertent” changes occur as an intelligent species becomes more advanced and gains control over its surroundings. The examples that he gave of an inadvertent change are rising CO2 levels or the formation of the hole in the ozone layer. And finally, Intentional changes would be things like fixing the hole in the ozone layer, halting global warming, terraforming Mars, etc.

Grinspoon suggested that humans are reaching a “21st century bottleneck” where we are reaching the point where we have to face lots of problems and challenges that are the result of our own success and advances (e.g. global warming, overpopulation, finite resources, etc.). He said that it might be possible that once a civilization gets beyond roughly where we are now and deals with all of our current challenges, then the civilizations’s likelihood of living for a very long time increases dramatically. He said that if this is the case and that civilizations that pass this bottleneck become effectively immortal, then we need to rethink the Drake equation. It’s entirely possible that the vast majority of civilizations (maybe including ours) don’t survive the bottleneck, but those who do, go on to live forever, so the total number of civilizations in the universe would constantly increase instead of staying constant as suggested by the Drake equation.

Grinspoon ended his talk with this quote from Franz Kafka: “Is there hope? Oh yes, lots of hope. But not for us.”

James Cameron after his solo dive to the bottom of the ocean which tied the record for deepest dive ever.

Today’s highlight for me was going to see the special presentation by James Cameron about his ultra-deep dive in the Challenger deep. I almost didn’t go, but I am very glad I did. He was a good speaker, and clearly had a good technical knowledge about what he was talking about. And of course, his talk was accompanied by spectacular video that will eventually be assembled into the documentary that he is making about the dive. The strange life forms that he showed were truly alien-looking, and the engineering that went into designing the submersible was very impressive. Cameron’s talk was followed by scientific talks by scientists involved in the dive, which covered the strange biology, geology, and chemistry observed.

During this session, my twitter feed suddenly exploded as the NASA press conference announced that NASA will be sending a new MSL-like rover to Mars to land in 2020. I have to say, I have mixed feelings about this announcement. It is great news for me in terms of career prospects, but as I sat in the deep-sea session and heard Kevin Hand talking about how lessons from Earth’s deep ocean might carry over to astrobiology on Europa, I couldn’t help but wonder why a Mars mission was selected over a Europa mission.

Of course I know the answers: NASA currently is really good at landing on Mars. Money can be saved by using as much as possible from MSL. The orbital geometry for a Mars landing in 2020 is favorable. The public is clearly pretty interested in Mars these days. A Europa mission would be really expensive, etc., etc.

But it’s really a shame that NASA can’t do both a new Mars rover and a Europa mission. To paraphrase what Kevin Hand said today while on stage and oblivious to the big NASA announcement that had just been made in a different room at this conference: What Curiosity is doing on Mars is great, but the next stop should be Europa. We’ve got the tools and technology for a Europa mission. We just don’t have the will.

Still frame from the movie 2010. Borrowed from twitter account @BadPhysics who tweeted this image and said: "Pro-tip: it wasn't a documentary."