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Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.

The novel is based on Arvin's own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin's work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animation viewing.




Flipping open his laptop, Arvin began by showing us a "greatest hits" reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi-truck jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backwards into a telegraph pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable. As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew that an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy.

The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moment(s) of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. This layer of scientific explanation provided a jarring contrast to the violence of the collision itself and the resulting wreckage—of lives, it was hard not to imagine, as well as the scattered vehicles.



As we went on to discuss, it is precisely that disjuncture, between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior, that The Reconstructionist, takes as its territory.

Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. The edited transcript is below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: How do you go about building car crash reconstruction animations?

Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. We fed the motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles. To generate such detailed data, we sometimes used a specialized software program⎯the one we used is called PC-Crash⎯or sometimes we just used some equations in Excel.


A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the "Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present," and that "up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project."

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now.

Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. You can put two vehicles in and run them into each other, and PC-Crash will simulate the collision, including the motion afterward, as they come apart and roll off to wherever they roll off to.


A screenshot of PC-Crash's "Collision Optimizer."


As the demo promises, "in PC-Crash 3D, the scene can be viewed from any angle desired."

Often you have a Point A and a Point B, and you need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one to the other. Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it. Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.” But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part.

Twilley: In real life, are you primarily using these kind of animations to test what you think happened, or is it more useful to generate a range of possibilities that you can then look for evidence of on the ground? In the book, your reconstructionists seem to do both, for example, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses.

Arvin: That’s right. That’s how it works in real life, too. Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily. We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

One of the challenges of the business is that when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet. So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation.

Which is all to say that you have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened. In the novel there is an example of this kind of thinking when Boggs shows Ellis how, when looking at a vehicle that has rolled over, you literally examine each individual scratch mark on the vehicle, because a scratch can tell you about the orientation of the vehicle as it hit the ground, and it can also tell you where the vehicle was when the scratch was made, since asphalt makes one kind of scratch, while dirt or gravel will make a different type of scratch.

For one case I worked on, a high-speed rollover where the vehicle rolled three or four times, we printed out a big map of the accident site. It was so big we had to roll out down the hallway. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. We had a toy model of the car, and we sat there on the floor and rolled the toy from point to point on the map, trying to figure out which dent in the vehicle corresponded to which impact point on the ground.

I remember the vehicle rolled through a barbed wire fence, and there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, one of my colleagues was going back through some really poor quality police photographs. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. But he happened to be going back through them, and he noticed a fireman with a big crowbar. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! They had crowbarred the door open.

Which is all to say that you have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly does the driver begin braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? Ultimately, you’re planning to put this in front of a jury and they have to believe it.

Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present.

Arvin: Yes. There’s a lot of science in it, but there is an art to it, as well. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that.

It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book.

I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on.

He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. And then as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. They actually spray-painted the pig hide black, to make it the right color. He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by.



But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road.

Twilley: That’s an interesting analogy to the craft of writing fiction, related to the question of what is sufficient evidence for something to be believable.

Arvin: Exactly. It’s so subjective.

In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. In the novel, it takes place in Wisconsin, but in reality it happened in Monterey, California. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there.

Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. The jury already believed the pigs were a problem and the state should be doing something about it.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Geoff Manaugh: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, some little kid throws a water balloon into the street that distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. Clearly something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash.

For the purpose of the reconstructionist, then, where is the narrative boundary of a crash event? Does the car crash begin when tires cross the yellow line, or when the foot hits the brakes—or even earlier, when it started to rain, or when the driver failed to get his tires maintained?

Arvin: It’s never totally clear. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about. In that roll-over crash, for example, part of the issue was that the vehicle was traveling way over the speed limit, but another issue was that the tires hadn’t been properly maintained. And when you start backing out to look at the decisions that the drivers made at different moments leading up to that collision, you can always end up backing out all the way to the point where it’s: well, if they hadn’t hit snooze on the alarm clock that morning

Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman…

Arvin: [laughs] Right.

We worked on this one case where a guy’s car was hit by the train. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet.

He’d had this job for four years, and he’d been driving to work at the same time all those years, so he’d probably never seen a train coming over those tracks before—but, because he was an hour off, there was a train. So, you know, if he’d remembered to change his clocks…


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance? You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Where do you draw a line between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you? What’s just happenstance?

It’s a very grey area, but the reconstructionist has to reach into the gray area and try to establish some logical sequence of causality and responsibility in a situation.

Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Other characters in the book have other methods for accessing the past: I’m thinking of the way Ellis’s father stores everything, or Heather’s photography. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods.

Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. They are all false, to an extent, in their own way.

The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Working as a reconstructionist, I was really struck by how often people’s memories were clearly false, because they’d remember things that just physically were not possible. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point.

Pedestrian accidents tended to be like that, because when a car runs into a person it doesn’t leave much physical evidence behind. When two cars run into each other, there’s all this stuff left at the point where they collided, so you can figure out where that point was. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony.


Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new "multibody pedestrian" functionality.

Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you.

Arvin: Exactly. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done?

Twilley: It’s like a crash site: to what extent, once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, is a place not the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives of crashes that define it for a legal purpose and yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives.

Arvin: I always felt that tension—you are looking at the physics and the equations in order to understand this very compressed moment in time, but then there are these people who passed through that moment of time, and it had a huge effect on their lives. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. Writing the book for me was part of the process of trying to reconcile those things.


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Manaugh: While I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson, and how, in a sense, its discovery was all a kind of crash forensics.

Arvin: You’re right. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. I love that. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives.

If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened.

Manaugh: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective as opposed to a bad detective. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative.

What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to this kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. And then he retired. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement.

Arvin: That’s great. I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together.

It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. Basically, as a writer, you’ve committed to not wasting the reader’s time. He would say that the reader is like a person climbing a mountain, and the author is putting certain objects along the reader’s path that the reader has to pick up and put into their backpack; when they get to the top of the mountain there better be something to do with all these things in their backpack, or they are going to be pissed that they hauled it all the way up there.

That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—and Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. It seems rare to be equipped with both ways of seeing the world. How does being an engineer play into writing, or vice versa?

Arvin: I think the two things are not really that different. They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship.

One thing that I think about quite a bit is the way that both engineering and writing require a lot of attention to ambiguity. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. You become very attuned to places where your writing is potentially open to multiple meanings that you were not intending.

Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection.

But there’s a difference at the larger level. In writing, and writing fiction in particular, you actually look for areas of ambiguity that are interesting, and you draw those out to create stories that exemplify those ambiguities—because those are the things that are interesting to think about.

Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster?

Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot. You spend a lot of time looking at these minute details, and you become very familiar with exactly how lands rolls off and where the trees are, and where the fence posts are and what type of asphalt that county uses, because different kinds of asphalt have different friction effects.

Twilley: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond.

Arvin: It does, in a way. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. That was something I wanted to bring out in the book—some description of what that place is, that place along the road itself.

You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from point A to point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. I wanted to look at that in the book. I wanted to look at the actual road and the things that are right along the road, this landscape that we usually blur right past.

The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are in litigation are kept. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them.


A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio.

Manaugh: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? And if so, then you can imagine at one end of it, the super-crash—the crash that maybe happens once every generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash!

Manaugh: Exactly—Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. Do you think in terms of categories or degrees of severity, or is every crash unique?

Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. They also get categorized as rollover collision, collision that leads to a rollover, and so on. So there are categories like that, and they immediately point you to certain kinds of analysis. The way you analyze a rollover is quite a bit different from how you analyze an impact. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity.

I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision!


Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

You become a little bit of an accident snob, and resisting that was something that I struggled with. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. And, there was a dark humor that tended to creep in, and that worried me, too. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful.

Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself?

Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal.

Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. It’s a scary place—a scary moment.



Twilley: Before we wrap up, I want to talk about some of your other work, too. An earlier novel, Articles of War, was chosen for “One Book, One Denver.” I’d love to hear about the experience of having a whole city read your book: did that level of public appropriation reshape the book for you?

Arvin: That’s an interesting question. There were some great programs: they had a professional reader reading portions of it, and there was a guy who put part of it to music, so it was reinterpreted in a variety of ways. That was really, really fun for me. It brought out facets of the book that I hadn’t been fully aware of.

The whole thing gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of people around the city who had read the book. I did a radio interview with high school students who had read the book—this was when we were deeper into the Iraq war and there were a lot of parallels being drawn with that war. And these were kids who were potentially going off to that war, so that was very much on their mind.

You had this concentrated group of people looking at the book and reading it and talking about it, and everybody’s got their own way of receiving it. It helped me see how, once a book is out there, it isn’t mine anymore. Every reader makes it their own.

Manaugh: Finally, I’m interested in simply how someone becomes a reconstructionist. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of!

Arvin: True. For me, it was a haphazard path. Remember how we talked earlier about that gray area between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you?

I have degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan and Stanford. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. I worked there for about three years. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. My brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, and it seemed like a cool town so I moved here. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job.

I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. He was impressed by that, so he brought me in for an interview.

In that business, you write a lot of reports and he thought I might be helpful with that.


Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with?

Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Right now, I am working on both a power plant and an oil facility in North Dakota—there’s lots of stuff going on out there as part of the Bakken play. It’s very different from the forensics.

Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? Or do you somehow find a way to do both?

Arvin: I do both. I work part time. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great.

Engineers who write novels are pretty scarce. There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe.

I feel as though I have access to material—to a cast of characters and a way of thinking—that’s not available to very many writers. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does. I remember when I first started working in forensics, on day one, I thought, this is a novel right here.
The largest collection of wild yeasts in the world fits inside a single beige chest freezer, humming quietly at the back of a busy lab in the University of California at Davis's shiny new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science.



The Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, as it's known, consists of more than 7,000 strains of 750 different species of the single-celled fungi, mixed with glycerine in cryogenically stored vials or freeze-dried into pellets. Roughly 80 percent of them are not held by any other yeast library in the world.



Kyria Boundy-Mills
, the Phaff Collection curator, knows this because last year she surveyed her global yeast-collecting colleagues, then published her findings in the Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology. Her own yeast empire is one of several such microbial archives around the world, ranging from broad national "type" libraries to niche collections specializing in microbes from reefs, breweries, and even Antarctic explorers' huts.

As Boundy-Mills showed Venue around her office and lab, she explained that the Phaff Collection's main focus is yeasts isolated from environmental habitats: gathered from sewage sludge, vanished cacti forests, cockroaches, hot springs, glaciers, human cerebrospinal fluid, and a mare's uterus.



The oldest yeast in the collection was isolated by the UC Berkeley cellarmaster in 1893. When Venue visited, Boundy-Mills was still busy processing the 150 new species of yeast she brought back from a 2011 National Institutes of Health-funded biodiversity survey expedition in Indonesia.

"Nearly half of them are new to science," she told us, which makes them a lot of work. "That’s lifetime’s worth of work there, just to describe 60 new species."

The expedition, which included entomologists, botanists, and ichythologists, cataloged such an immense richness of biodiversity that, Mills told Venue, their research site has now been proposed as a national park. "If it's passed," she said, "it will be the first national park in Indonesia to be declared based on biodiversity data—and one of the first in the world based specifically on biodiversity."

The unspoken implication here—that there could even someday be a yeast-based national park—raises the fascinating subject of scale when discussing the types of landscapes or habitats we consider worthy of preservation. Could a single, microbiologically rich room or building be biologically important enough to be declared a national park?

In any case, while other colleagues focused on collecting and identifying microbes and plants with therapeutic potential, Boundy-Mills' focus was on possible bioenergy applications. Specifically, this meant looking for new enzymes that can break down plant materials to simpler sugars, as well as new yeast varieties that can eat sugar and turn it into oil. As Boundy-Mills explained:

Most yeasts will stop eating when they’re no longer hungry. But there are a few yeast species that keep eating the sugar—and eating it and eating it—and they convert it to oil and store it. Under the microscope, you see these big, huge oil droplets inside the cells. They can be up to 60 percent oil—they’re like these obese, couch-potato yeasts.

To find enzymes that can break down plant material, Boundy-Mills and her team sampled the gut microbes of wood-feeding beetle larvae, as well as the decaying wood around them. Meanwhile, a lot of the high-oil yeasts that Boundy-Mills brought back were isolated from the surface of leaves, with some coming from the soil.


Dissected Buprestid beetle larvae, photograph by Irnayuli Sitepu (UC Davis; Ministry of Forestry, Indonesia).

Yeast cells, at only a couple of microns in length, are frequently more of a challenge to isolate for collection than plants or fish. In some cases, Boundy-Mills would just take a sterile bag, put it around a leaf, pluck it off, and pour in some sterile saline solution. After it had swished around for a while, she would put that liquid on an agar plate to culture any microbes that had been on the leaf's surface. Meanwhile, she told us with evident glee, a lot of the high-oil yeasts form ballistospores, meaning that they shoot out their spores, firing them several millimeters into the air:

This is kind of cool. For them, we smeared some Vaseline inside the lid of the Petri plate, and we stuck some pieces of leaf in the lid. If the yeast can make these ballistospores, they will shoot those down onto the agar surface and grow there. It’s called the ballistospore capture method.

Now that she has these Indonesian couch-potato yeasts back in the lab (after mountains of import and and export paperwork, and a lengthy process of purification and DNA analysis), Boundy-Mills is not only observing their oil production performance, but also studying the other by-products that could possibly come out of the yeast cell, in order to make it an economically viable biofuel production process.

As well as oils, some of her yeasts produce protein, anti-oxidants, and even flavoring ingredients. Elsewhere in the collection are yeasts that show promise in agricultural pest control or are used in food processing.

One strain, Phaffia rhodozyma, was originally isolated on a tree stump in Japan, and is now used industrially to produce a dietary supplement for farmed salmon and shrimp, to make them pinker.



In addition to her own research and the occasional yeast-hunting expedition, Boundy-Mills spends her time preparing and sending out strains to researchers who request them, and maintaining the collection—no small task, as the yeasts are far from immortal, even in the extreme cold, so each strain has to be re-cultured on agar in Petri dishes every five years.


Kyria Boundy-Mills with Herman Phaff's notebooks. Phaff, who founded the collection, focused on the ecology of yeast, recording copious contextual notes on their functionality in nature, their interaction with decaying plant material, and the insects that live alongside them.


The Yeasts: A Taxonomic Study has expanded from one volume (center) to three (left) over the past decade.

Boundy-Mills also acts as a kind of yeast consultant, screening and identifying yeasts for biotech companies. As we prepared to leave, she showed us her yeast bible: a taxonomic catalog of all known yeasts. To help us understand why she finds the field so exciting, she explained:

In 2001, when Hermann Phaff, who founded this collection, died, the Taxonomic Study was just one volume, with about six or seven hundred species. In 2011, they had to split it into three volumes, to accommodate more than 1,400 species. And there’s another couple of hundred yeast species that have come out since that was published.

Incredibly, while the known universe of yeasts is increasing exponentially, thanks primarily to DNA sequencing technology, it's estimated that less than one percent of the world's yeast species have been discovered.

"It's one of the most under-surveyed fields—microbes in general," Boundy-Mills sighed. "There are no yeasts that are on the endangered species list because we wouldn't even know if they were at risk. We’re spending all this time and effort exploring the extraterrestrial world, which is great. But we need to spend more time and effort exploring the terrestrial world, too. There’s so much on this planet that we just have not discovered yet!"


On a brief detour on our way to visit Carlsbad, New Mexico, Venue swung through the northwest extremity of Texas, within shooting distance of the 10,000 Year Clock of the Long Now Foundation and through the looming mountainous remains of an ancient coral reef.

What was once a seabed is now desert, lifted far above the distant Gulf and criss-crossed with exploratory hiking paths.



The Guadalupe Mountains, subject to federal land preservation as the Guadalupe Mountains National Park since 1972, tower over the arid valley that first welcomed us on the drive.

"From the highway," National Geographic writes, "the mountains resemble a nearly monolithic wall through the desert." Indeed, the huge and looming landforms to our north—a landscape made from billions of dead marine organisms, compressed and laminated over millions of years into geology—seemed to hold back, for the entirety of our hike, an ominous weather front that was all but pinned there in the sky like a dark butterfly threatening a rainstorm that never arrived, unable to cross over the jagged hills.



"But drive into one of the park entrances," the magazine continues, "take even a short stroll, and surprises crop up: dramatically contoured canyons, shady glades surrounded by desert scrub, a profusion of wildlife and birds." That's exactly what we did, on a short diversion from our drive into Carlsbad.

Humans have been living in the area for at least 12,000 years, often leaving behind pictographs. They had settled what is, in reality, an ancient shoreline, an ocean coast produced tens of millions of years ago, primarily during the late Cretaceous. Indeed, the region has passed through several instances of flooding, including a Pleistocene-era salt lake 1.8 million years ago that left behind the El Paso dune field, salt flats that actually led to a brief war in the 1870s.



In any case, as can be seen in the maps of geologist Ron Blakey, who Venue interviewed at his home in Flagstaff, Arizona, about the challenge of visually representing the large-scale terrestrial changes that produced landscapes such as the Guadalupe Mountains, the region was one maritime, more like the Bahamas or Indonesia than the dry uplands of the U.S. southwest.

Map of North America during the Cretaceous-Tertiary by Ron Blakey.

At that point, warm and shallow seas extended deep into what is now northwest Texas, leaving behind uncountable billions of sea creatures whose remains later became soft limestone. This limestone, easily eroded and well-known for its propensity to form mammoth caves, is also the reason why this region is riddled from within with truly huge caverns—including Carlsbad Caverns, located at the northeastern edge of the same mountain range that forms the Guadalupes.

The possibility that equally massive, as yet undiscovered caverns might extend deep beneath the monumental cliffs and ridges we hiked along was something that lurked in the back of our minds as walked along.

In the end, our hike was uneventful but visually expansive, more a quick way to stretch our legs during a long road-trip, and an excuse to talk about lost oceans and inland seas before we headed underground into Carlsbad Caverns a few days later, than an extended visit to this truly huge National Park. But, luckily, the park will still be there when we return to Texas someday with more time our hands

Lead image courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service
Between 1897 and 1930, Henry Chapman Mercer, a gentleman anthropologist, set out to collect the handmade tools of everyday American life, just as industrialization was making these tools obsolete.


In 1913, Mercer began work on a six-story poured-in-place concrete castle to house them near his home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

More than 30,000 objects from Mercer's collection—from tiny butter molds to car-sized threshing machines—are displayed within the soaring arches of his eccentric structure.


Many of them are simply strapped to pillars or hung from the ceiling, often giving the sense that one is standing somehow upside-down amidst the proliferation of objects. The Piranesian result is one of the most unusual and awe-inspiring museums in the world.


Rather than reproducing each tool's original workshop context to show how butchery, for example, or coopering—barrel-making—equipment was actually used, Mercer's dense sense of display, combined with the odd angles of the building's numerous alcoves and winding stairwells, force museum visitors to appreciate the tools as aesthetic objects.

The museum is thus more like a sprawling archive of hand-crafted forms, each of which embodies the needs, wants, knowledge, and available resources of 19th-century Americans.



Over 30 years, Mercer gathered a near-encyclopedic assemblage of pre-industrial tools, classifying them by trade.

Around the building's edges, scissors, pans, funnels, and confectionery molds sit next to glass-blowing pipes and pontils, while a fire-fighting engine, gallows, and a bored wooden sewage pipe hang precariously over balconies into the central atrium.




Most, if not all, of the tools are indecipherable to the modern eye. They have since been replaced by completely new technologies, or, at the very least, by mass-produced substitutes that bear little formal resemblance to the original tools they came from .


Take the hornsmithing equipment, for example: once used to turn the horns of cattle and oxen into everything from combs (and other hair accessories) to ladles, bowls, and cups, this particular breed of equipment became obsolete at the end of the 19th century. At that point, newly invented celluloid took horn's place as an all-purpose, plastic material.


Previously valuable horn-working tools—such as the standing horse, drawknife, and quarnet—were simply discarded as the particular problem they had been invented to solve disappeared.

Mercer's foresight in collecting these extinct tools allows modern visitors to see and understand an entire taxonomy of expired technologies through which early Americans shaped their world.



Aside from sheer visual spectacle, the Mercer Museum also stands as a structurally complex monument to forgotten knowledge, a sprawling and labyrinthine catalog of human ingenuity.

In the process, it new serves as a somewhat shocking—at the very least, awe-inspiring—reminder of the amount of work involved in the creating the artifacts of everyday life, work that, in an era of mass production, is often neither witnessed nor performed by human beings at all.


And, for Venue, equipped with our own motley assemblage of survey devices and instruments, the museum also offered a particularly fascinating immersion in the lessons to be learned by reading a culture through the tools and equipment it far too often takes for granted.


The museum—an imposing Gothic knot of arches roofs and chimneys—is a surreal sight, towering above the suburban homes of Doylestown, and is open every day of the week, hours depending. It is well worth a detour for anyone passing between New York and Philadelphia.

On what was to be, sadly, Venue's only stop in Oregon, we went off-road to visit the world's largest organism, a colossal fungus in the remote eastern mountains of the state, about an hour west of the arid border with Idaho.



For most of the year, including the day we visited, the organism is only visible through its neighbors' distress. Armillaria ostoyae is a kind of honey fungus that parasitizes, colonizes, kills, and then decays the root systems of its conifer hosts; this leaves behind a tell-tale ring-shaped gradient of long-dead, dying, and recently infected trees.

The super-sized organism consists, for the most part, of underground rhizomorphs: long, shoestring-like threads that branch outward to find and infest new conifer roots.



(Top) Healthy trees, elsewhere in the Malheur National Forest. (Bottom) Trees felled by the world's largest organism, Malheur National Forest.

Much of the northeastern section of Oregon's Malheur National Forest is covered in discontinuous patches of fungus-killed trees. Until recently, however, they were thought to be the work of lots of separate mushrooms.

Then, in 2000, USDA researchers collected samples of fungus from a roughly four-mile square section of the forest, and cultured them together in a Petri dish; it was an experiment designed to map the boundary edges of different fungal individuals. To their surprise, the samples from different patches of forest refused to react with each other as an alien other, and subsequent tests confirmed that they were, in fact, genetically identical—all the samples came from the same individual fungus.

This single organism, which began life as a microscopic spore, had spread into a 2,385-acre web of thin, black filaments—roughly the same footprint as a second-tier American airport, such as Philadelphia International.

Further, based on estimates made for smaller individuals, Genet D, as it was fondly christened, weighs between 7,567 and 35,000 tons (an elephant, for reference, clocks in at a maximum of only 8 tons). The humongous fungus is even up there in terms of its age, which is estimated at anything from 1,900 to 8,650 years (although that is dwarfed in comparison to a 200,000-year-old patch of seagrass in the Mediterranean).


Map from the USDA guide to the Humongous Fungus, which includes GPS coordinates (PDF).

The USDA guide to the fungus (PDF) helpfully notes that the best viewpoint on the destruction wreaked by the world's largest organism is from the other side of the valley, just east of a gravel pit and next to its smaller, 482-acre cousin.

We stopped there and surveyed the devastated forest, briefly mulling the difficulties giant clones such as the humongous fungus pose to the very idea of the individual, while keeping our fingers crossed that the standing-dead trees around us wouldn't choose this moment to fall.


The Humongous Fungus in fruit. Photograph courtesy of the USDA.

In a great essay by the late Stephen Jay Gould—called, of course, "A Humongous Fungus Among Us"—Gould describes "the striking way that this underground fungal mat," in his case, a 30-acre Armillaria fungal clone in Michigan, "forces us to wrestle with the vital biological (and philosophical) question of proper definitions for individuality." He suggests, for example, that entirely new conceptualizations of parent-offspring relationships, let alone wholly new understandings of individuals and super-individuals, might be possible.

For the sake of offering an alternative, Gould asks, "Why not propose that such gigantic mats of rhizomorphs form as congeries, or aggregations made of products grown from several founding spores (representing many different parents), all twisted and matted together—in other words, a heap rather than a person?" To qualify biologically as a single individual, Gould later adds, a creature "must have a clear beginning (or birth) point, a clear ending (or death) point, and sufficient stability between to be recognized as an entity."

The "entity" all around us, then, curled up and knotted through the roots of the forest—"all twisted and matted together" both through itself and through the landscape it thrived within—was equal parts biological mystery only recently solved by genetic testing and a kind of invisible spectacle detectable only in its side-effects, a living and strangely sinister force acting on the hills from below.



Meanwhile, if you go into the Oregon woods on the hunt for the world's largest organism in the autumn, after the first rains, the fruiting honey mushrooms are supposed to be quite tasty.
Upon first reading about it, Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello–a structure he himself designed and that he filled with strange devices, such as a room-sized clock that partially disappears through the floor, and a collection of paleontological artifacts, including mastodon bones—sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.


Amidst this symmetrical house of complex moving walls and shelves, hidden servants' passages, and meteorological equipment, the early days of a nation destined to become the United States were given a speculative, scientific air, where the European Enlightenment met the giant, extinct species of the New World, and an unmapped landscape creased with unearthly rivers meandering always further outward through endless plains and distant mountains.

Described that way, Monticello sounds not unlike "Solomon’s House," a fabulous scientific research facility featured in Sir Francis Bacon’s 17th-century utopian science fiction tale, The New Atlantis.


The Invisible College or the House of Solomon, Teophilus Schweighardt,1618, via.

Solomon’s House, we read, is a kind of super-observatory, a temple of science inside of which natural philosophers manage vast, artificial landscapes and operate complex machines, in spatial scenarios that rival anything we might read about today in Dubai or China.

Bacon offers a lengthy inventory of the devices available for use there: "We have... great and spacious houses where we imitate and demonstrate meteors... We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation... We have also engine-houses, where are prepared engines and instruments for all sorts of motions... We have also a mathematical house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made..."

Thus, hoping to encounter a kind of Solomon's House of the early Americas, built by a U.S. President, its walls filled with mysterious devices and its rooms lined with old bones and fossils, with maps of unknown frontier lands greeting every visitor in the entrance hall, Venue went out of its way to visit Monticello, on the edge of Charlottesville, Virginia.



Alas, in reality, Jefferson's house is interesting, but by no means the steampunk-like fantasy of para-scientific insights, moving walls, and secret passages that at least one half of Venue was giddily—naively?—anticipating.

As it was, Venue arrived in a foggy downpour after a long drive across the state, arriving just in time for the final tour of the day, on which we were the only people.


The start of Jefferson's 7-Day Clock, in the entrance hall of Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.


The clock continues through the floor.


This wind direction indicator is connected to a weathervane on the roof.


A revolving service door. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Of course, Monticello does, indeed, have the famous clock that stretches down from the foyer all the way into the cellar, where the passage of time is marked by painted lines on the structure of the house itself; and there is the garden outside with its mysterious lost roads.

But there is also the mundane reality of a house stocked with old furniture and fancy porcelain, and the understated historical fact that it's, in fact, deeply misleading to refer to anything here as a servant's passage, when it is now so widely known as to be satirized in pop culture that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner and the people walking around through hidden doors and tight corridors from room to room, remaining out of sight whenever possible, weren't employees but human possessions.



The lower jawbone of a mastodon, displayed at Monticello. Photo courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

In the end, there were the old bones, maps, and artifacts from the expedition of Lewis & Clark; but we did not spend nearly as much time there as we thought we might, and instead continued, while the rain continued to fall, on our way north to Washington D.C.
A landscape painting above Penny Boston's living room entryway depicts astronauts exploring Mars.

Penelope Boston is a speleo-biologist at New Mexico Tech, where she is Director of Cave and Karst Science. She graciously welcomed Venue to her home in Los Lunas, New Mexico, where we arrived with design futurist Stuart Candy in tow, en route to dropping him off at the Very Large Array later that day.

Boston's work involves studying subterranean ecosystems and their extremophile inhabitants here on Earth, in order to better imagine what sorts of environments and lifeforms we might encounter elsewhere in the Universe. She has worked with the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (NIAC) to develop protocols for both human extraterrestrial cave habitation and for subterranean life-detection missions on Mars, life which she believes is highly likely to exist.

Over the course of the afternoon, Boston told Venue about her own experiences on Mars analog sites; she explained why she believes there is a strong possibility for life below the surface of the Red Planet, perhaps inside the planet's billion year-old networks of lava tubes; she described her astonishing (and terrifying) cave explorations here on Earth; and we touch on some mind-blowing ideas seemingly straight out of science fiction, including extreme forms of extraterrestrial life (such as dormant life on comets, thawed and reawakened with every passage close to the sun) and the extraordinary potential for developing new pharmaceuticals from cave microorganisms. The edited transcript of our conversation is below.

• • •


The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) on Devon Island, courtesy the Mars Society.

Geoff Manaugh: As a graduate student, you co-founded the Mars Underground and then the Mars Society. You’re a past President of the Association of Mars Explorers, and you’re also now a member of the science team taking part in Mars Arctic 365, a new one-year Mars surface simulation mission set to start in summer 2014 on Devon Island. How does this long-term interest in Mars exploration tie into your Earth-based research in speleobiology and subterranean microbial ecosystems?

Penelope Boston: Even though I do study surface things that have a microbial component, like desert varnish and travertines and so forth, I really think that it’s the subsurface of Mars where the greatest chance of extant life, or even preservation of extinct life, would be found.

Nicola Twilley: Is it part of NASA’s strategy to go subsurface at any point, to explore caves on Mars or the moon?

Boston: Well, yes and no. The “Strategy” and the strategy are two different things.

The Mars Curiosity rover is a very capable chemistry and physics machine and I am, of course, dying to hear the details of the geochemistry it samples. A friend of mine, for instance, with whom I’m also a collaborator, is the principal investigator of the SAM instrument. Friends of mine are also on the CheMin instrument. So I have a vested interest, both professionally and personally, in the Curiosity mission.

On the other hand, you know: here we go again with yet another mission on the surface. It’s fascinating, and we still have a lot to learn there, but I hope I will live long enough to see us do subsurface missions on Mars and even on other bodies in the solar system.

Unfortunately, right now, we are sort of in limbo. The downturn in the global economy and our national economy has essentially kicked NASA in the head. It’s very unclear where we are going, at this point. This is having profound, negative effects on the Agency itself and everyone associated with it, including those of us who are external fundees and sort of circum-NASA.

On the other hand, although we don’t have a clear plan, we do have clear interests, and we have been pursuing preliminary studies. NASA has sponsored a number of studies on deep drilling, for example. One of the most famous was probably about 15 years ago, and it really kicked things off. That was up in Santa Fe, and we were looking at different methodologies for getting into the subsurface.

I have done a lot of work, some of which has been NASA-funded, on the whole issue of lava tubes—that is, caves associated with volcanism on the surface. Now, Glenn Cushing and Tim Titus at the USGS facility in Flagstaff have done quite a bit of serious work on the high-res images coming back from Mars, and they have identified lava tubes much more clearly than we ever did in our earlier work over the past decade.

Surface features created by lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Twilley: Are caves as common on Mars as they are on Earth? Is that the expectation?

Boston: I’d say that lava tubes are large, prominent, and liberally distributed everywhere on Mars. I would guess that there are probably more lava tubes on Mars than there are here on Earth—because here they get destroyed. We have such a geologically and hydro-dynamically active planet that the weathering rates here are enormous.

But on Mars we have a lot of factors that push in the other direction. I’d expect to find tubes of exceeding antiquity—I suspect that billions-of-year-old tubes are quite liberally sprinkled over the planet. That’s because the tectonic regime on Mars is quiescent. There is probably low-level tectonism—there are, undoubtedly, Marsquakes and things like that—but it’s not a rock’n’roll plate tectonics like ours, with continents galloping all over the place, and giant oceans opening up across the planet.

That means the forces that break down lava tubes are probably at least an order of magnitude or more—maybe two, maybe three—less likely to destroy lava tubes over geological time. You will have a lot of caves on Mars, and a lot of those caves will be very old.

Plus, remember that you also have .38 G. The intrinsic tensile strength of the lava itself, or whatever the bedrock is, is also going to allow those tubes to be much more resistant to the weaker gravity there.

Surface features of lava tubes on Mars; image via ESA

Manaugh: I’d imagine that, because the gravity is so much lower, the rocks might also behave differently, forming different types of arches, domes, and other formations underground. For instance, large spans and open spaces would be shaped according to different gravitational strains. Would that be a fair expectation?

Boston: Well, it’s harder to speculate on that because we don’t know what the exact composition of the lava is—which is why, someday, we would love to get a Mars sample-return mission, which is no longer on the books right now. [sighs] It’s been pushed off.

In fact, I just finished, for the seventh time in my career, working on a panel on that whole issue. This was the E2E—or End-to-End—group convened by Dave Beatty, who is head of the Mars Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [PDF].

About a year ago, we finished doing some intensive international work with our European Space Agency partners on Mars sample-return—but now it’s all been pushed off again. The first one of those that I worked on was when I was an undergraduate, almost ready to graduate at Boulder, and that was 1979. It just keeps getting pushed off.

I’d say that we are very frustrated within the planetary and astrobiology communities. We can use all these wonderful instruments that we load onto vehicles like Curiosity and we can send them there. We can do all this fabulous orbital stuff. But, frankly speaking, as a person with at least one foot in Earth science, until you’ve got the stuff in your hands—actual physical samples returned from Mars—there is a lot you can’t do.

Looking down through a "skylight" on Mars; image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Twilley: Could you talk a bit about your work with exoplanetary research, including what you’re looking for and how you might find it?

Boston: [laughs] The two big questions!

But, yes. We are working on a project at Socorro now to atmospherically characterize exoplanets. It’s called NESSI, the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument. Our partner is Mark Swain, over at JPL. They are doing it using things like Kepler, and they have a new mission they’re proposing, called FINESSE. FINESSE will be a dedicated exoplanet atmospheric characterizer.

We are also trying to do that, in conjunction with them, but from a ground-based instrument, in order to make it more publicly accessible to students and even to amateur astronomers.

That reminds me—one of the other people you might be interested in talking to is a young woman named Lisa Messeri, who just recently finished her PhD in Anthropology at MIT. She’s at the University of Pennsylvania now. Her focus is on how scientists like me to think about other planets as other worlds, rather than as mere scientific targets—how we bring an abstract scientific goal into the familiar mental space where we also have recognizable concepts of landscape.

I’ve been obsessed with that my entire life: the concept of space, and the human scaling of these vastly scaled phenomena, is central, I think, to my emotional core, not just the intellectual core.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Manaugh: While we’re on the topic of scale, I’m curious about the idea of astrobiological life inhabiting a radically, undetectably nonhuman scale. For example, one of the things you’ve written and lectured about is the incredible slowness it takes for some organisms to form, metabolize, and articulate themselves in the underground environments you study. Could there be forms of astrobiological life that exist on an unbelievably different timescale, whether it’s a billion-year hibernation cycle that we might discover at just the wrong time and mistake, say, for a mineral? Or might we find something on a very different spatial scale—for example, a species that is more like a network, like an aspen tree or a fungus?

Boston: You know, Paul Davies is very interested in this idea—the concept of a shadow biosphere. Of course, I had also thought about this question for many years, long before I read about Davies or before he gave it a name.

The conundrum you face is how you would know—how you would study or even conceptualize—these other biospheres? It’s outside of your normal spatial and temporal comfort zone, in which all of your training and experience has guided you to look, and inside of which all of your instruments are designed to function. If it’s outside all of that, how will you know it when you see it?

Imagine comets. With every perihelion passage, volatile gases escape. You are whipping around the solar system. Your body comes to life for that brief period of time only. Now apply that to icy bodies in very elliptical orbits in other solar systems, hosting life with very long periods of dormancy.

There are actually some wonderful early episodes of The Twilight Zone that tap into that theme, in a very poetic and literary way. [laughs] Of course, it’s also the central idea of some of the earliest science fiction; I suppose Gulliver’s Travels is probably the earliest exploration of that concept.

In the microbial realm—to stick with what we do know, and what we can study—we are already dealing with itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny things that are devilishly difficult to understand. We have a lot of tools now that enable us to approach those, but, very regularly, we’ll see things in electron microscopy that we simply can’t identify and they are very clearly structured. And I don’t think that they are all artifacts of the preparation—things that get put there accidentally during prep.

A lot of the organisms that we actually grow, and with which we work, are clearly nanobacteria. I don’t know how familiar you are with that concept, but it has been extremely controversial. There are many artifacts out there that can mislead us, but we do regularly see organisms that are very small. So how small can they be—what’s the limit?

A few of the early attempts at figuring this out were just childish. That’s a mean thing to say, because a lot of my former mentors have written some of those papers, but they would say things like: “Well, we need to conduct X, Y, and Z metabolic pathways, so, of course, we need all this genetic machinery.” I mean, come on, you know that early cells weren’t like that! The early cells—who knows what they were or what they required?

To take the famous case of the ALH84001 meteorite: are all those little doobobs that you can see in the images actually critters? I don’t know. I think we’ll never know, at least until we go to Mars and bring back stuff.

I have relatively big microbes in my lab that regularly feature little knobs and bobs and little furry things, that I am actually convinced are probably either viruses or prions or something similar. I can’t get a virologist to tell me yes. They are used to looking at viruses that they can isolate in some fashion. I don’t know how to get these little knobby bobs off my guys for them to look at.

The Allan Hills Meteorite (ALH84001); courtesy of NASA.

Twilley: In your paper on the human utilization of subsurface extraterrestrial environments [PDF], you discuss the idea of a “Field Guide to Unknown Organisms,” and how to plan to find life when you don’t necessarily know what it looks like. What might go into such a guide?

Boston: The analogy I often use with graduate students when I teach astrobiology is that, in some ways, it’s as if we are scientists on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and we are trying to write a field guide to the birds of Earth. Where do you start? Well, you start with whatever template you have. Then you have to deeply analyze every feature of that template and ask whether each feature is really necessary and which are just a happenstance of what can occur.

I think there are fundamental principles. You can’t beat thermodynamics. The need for input and outgoing energy is critical. You have to be delicately poised, so that the chemistry is active enough to produce something that would be a life-like process, but not so active that it outstrips any ability to have cohesion, to actually keep the life process together. Water is great as a solvent for that. It’s probably not the only solvent, but it’s a good one. So you can look for water—but do you really need to look for water?

I think you have to pick apart the fundamental assumptions. I suspect that predation is a relatively universal process. I suspect that parasitism is a universal process. I think that, with the mathematical work being done on complex, evolving systems, you see all these emerging properties.

Now, with all of that said, the details—the sizes, the scale, the pace, getting back to what we were just talking about—I think there is huge variability in there.

Caves on Mars; images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS.

Twilley: How do you train people to look for unrecognizable life?

Boston: I think everybody—all biologists—should take astrobiology. It would smack you on the side of the head and say, “You have to rethink some of these fundamental assumptions! You can’t just coast on them.”

The organisms that we study in the subsurface are so different from the microbes that we have on the surface. They don’t have any predators—so, ecologically, they don’t have to outgrow any predators—and they live in an environment where energy is exceedingly scarce. In that context, why would you bother having a metabolic rate that is as high as some of your compatriots on the surface? You can afford to just hang out for a really long time.

We have recently isolated a lot of strains from these fluid inclusions in the Naica caves—the one with those gigantic crystals. It’s pretty clear that these guys have been trapped in these bubbles between 10,000 and 15,000 years. We’ve got fluid inclusions in even older materials—in materials that are a few million years old, even, in a case we just got some dates for, as much as 40 million years.


Naica Caves, image from the official website. The caves are so hot that explorers have to wear special ice-jackets to survive.

One of the caveats is, of course, that when you go down some distance, the overlying lithostatic pressure of all of that rock makes space impossible. Microbes can’t live in zero space. Further, they have to have at least inter-grain spaces or microporosity—there has to be some kind of interconnectivity. If you have organisms completely trapped in tiny pockets, and they never interact, then that doesn’t constitute a biosphere. At some point, you also reach temperatures that are incompatible with life, because of the geothermal gradient. Where exactly that spot is, I don’t know, but I’m actually working on a lot of theoretical ideas to do with that.

In fact, I’m starting a book for MIT Press that will explore some of these ideas. They wanted me to write a book on the cool, weird, difficult, dangerous places I go to and the cool, weird, difficult bugs I find. That’s fine—I’m going to do that. But, really, what I want to do is put what we have been working on for the last thirty years into a theoretical context that doesn’t just apply to Earth but can apply broadly, not only to other planets in our solar system, but to one my other great passions, of course, which is exoplanets—planets outside the solar system.

One of the central questions that I want to explore further in my book, and that I have been writing and talking about a lot, is: what is the long-term geological persistence of organisms and geological materials? I think this is another long-term, evolutionary repository for living organisms—not just fossils—that we have not tapped into before. I think that life gets recycled over significant geological periods of time, even on Earth.

That’s a powerful concept if we then apply it to somewhere like Mars, for example, because Mars does these obliquity swings. It has super-seasonal cycles. It has these little dimple moons that don’t stabilize it, whereas our moon stabilizes the Earth’s obliquity level. That means that Mars is going through these super cold and dry periods of time, followed by periods of time where it’s probably more clement.

Now, clearly, if organisms can persist for tens of thousands of years—let alone hundreds of thousands of years, and possibly even millions of years—then maybe they are reawakenable. Maybe you have this very different biosphere.

Manaugh: Like a biosphere in waiting.

Boston: Yes—a biosphere in waiting, at a much lower level.

Recently, I have started writing a conceptual paper that really tries to explore those ideas. The genome that we see active on the surface of any planet might be of two types. If you have a planet like Earth, which is photosynthetically driven, you’re going to have a planet that is much more biological in terms of the total amount of biomass and the rates at which this can be produced. But that might not be the only way to run a biosphere.

You might also have a much more low-key biosphere that could actually be driven by geochemical and thermal energy from the inside of the planet. This was the model that we—myself, Chris McKay, and Michael Ivanoff, one of our colleagues from what was the Soviet Union at the time—published more than twenty years ago for Mars. We suggested that there would be chemically reduced gases coming from the interior of the planet.

That 1992 paper was what got us started on caves. I had never been in a wild cave in my life before. We were looking for a way to get into that subsurface space. The Department of Energy was supporting a few investigators, but they weren’t about to share their resources. Drilling is expensive. But caves are just there; you can go inside them.

So that’s really what got us into caving. It was at that point where I discovered caves are so variable and fascinating, and I really refocused my career on that for the last 20 years.


Lechuguilla Cave, photograph by Dave Bunnell.


Penelope Boston caving, image courtesy of V. Hildreth-Werker, from "Extraterrestrial Caves: Science, Habitat, Resources," NIAC Phase I Study Final Report, 2001.

The first time I did any serious caving was actually in Lechuguilla Cave. It was completely nuts to make that one’s first wild cave. We trained for about three hours, then we launched into a five-day expedition into Lechuguilla that nearly killed us! Chris McKay came out with a terrible infection. I had a blob of gypsum in my eye and an infection that swelled it shut. I twisted my ankle. I popped a rib. Larry Lemke had a massive migraine. We were not prepared for this. The people taking us in should have known better. But one of them is a USGS guide and a super caving jock, so it didn’t even occur to him—it didn’t occur to him that we were learning instantaneously to operate in a completely alien landscape with totally inadequate skills.

All I knew was that I was beaten to a pulp. I could almost not get across these chasms. I’m a short person. Everybody else was six feet tall. I felt like I was just hanging on long enough so I could get out and live. I've been in jams before, including in Antarctica, but that’s all I thought of the whole five days: I just have to live through this.

But, when I got out, I realized that what the other part of my brain had retained was everything I had seen. The bruises faded. My eye stopped being infected. In fact, I got the infection from looking up at the ceiling and having some of those gooey blobs drip down into my eye—but, I was like, “Oh my God. This is biological. I just know it is.” So it was a clue. And, when, I got out, I knew I had to learn how to do this. I wanted to get back in there.

ESA astronauts on a "cave spacewalk" during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Manaugh: You have spoken about the possibility of entire new types of caves that are not possible on Earth but might be present elsewhere. What are some of these other cave types you think might exist, and what sort of conditions would have formed them? You’ve used some great phrases to describe those processes—things like “volatile labyrinths” and “ice volcanism” that create speleo-landscapes that aren’t possible on Earth.

Boston: Well, in terms of ice, I’ll bet there are all sorts of Lake Vostok-like things out there on other moons and planets.

The thing with Lake Vostok is that it’s not a "lake." It’s a cave: a cave in ice. The ice, in this case, acts as bedrock, so it’s not a lake at all. It’s a closed system.

Manaugh: It’s more like a blister: an enclosed space full of fluid.

Boston: Exactly. In terms of speculating on the kinds of caves that might exist elsewhere in the universe, we are actually working on a special issue for the Journal of Astrobiology right now, based on the extraterrestrial planetary caves meeting that we did last October. We brought people from all over the place. This is a collaboration between my Institute—the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, where we have our headquarters—and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

The meeting was an attempt to explore these ideas. Karl Mitchell from JPL, who I had not met previously, works on Titan; he’s on the Cassini Huygens mission. He thinks he is seeing karst-like features on Titan. Just imagine that! Hydrocarbon fluids producing karst-like features in water-ice bedrock—what could be more exotic than that?

That also shows that the planetary physics dominates in creating these environments. I used to think that the chemistry dominated. I don’t think so anymore. I think that the physics dominates. You have to step away from the chemistry at first and ask: what are the fundamental physics that govern the system? Then you can ask: what are the fundamental chemical potentials that govern the system that could produce life? It’s the same exercise with imagining what kind of caves you can get—and I have a lurid imagination.


From "Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments," P. J. Boston, R. D. Frederick, S. M. Welch, J. Werker, T. R. Meyer, B. Sprungman, V. Hildreth-Werker, S. L. Thompson, and D. L. Murphy, Gravitational and Space Biology Bulletin 16(2), June 2003.

One of the fun things I do in my astrobiology class every couple of years is the capstone project. The students break down into groups of four or five, hopefully well-mixed in terms of biologists, engineers, chemists, geologists, physicists, and other backgrounds.

Then they have to design their own solar system, including the fundamental, broad-scale properties of its star. They have to invent a bunch of planets to go around it. And they have to inhabit at least one of those planets with some form of life. Then they have to design a mission—either telescopic or landed—that could study it. They work on this all semester, and they are so creative. It’s wonderful. There is so much value in imagining the biospheres of other planetary bodies.

You just have to think: “What are the governing equations that you have on this planet or in this system?” You look at the gravitational value of a particular body, its temperature regime, and the dominant geochemistry. Does it have an atmosphere? Is it tectonic? One of the very first papers I did—it appeared in one of these obscure NASA special publications, of which they print about 100 and nobody can ever find a copy—was called “Bubbles in the Rocks.” It was entirely devoted to speculation about the properties of natural and artificial caves as life-support structures. A few years later, I published a little encyclopedia article, expanding on it, and I’m now working on another expansion, actually.

I think that, either internally, externally, or both, planetary bodies that form cracks are great places to start. If you then have some sort of fluid—even episodically—within that system, then you have a whole new set of cave-forming processes. Then, if you have a material that can exist not only in a solid phase, but also as a liquid or, in some cases, even in a vapor phase on the same planetary body, then you have two more sets of potential cave-forming processes. You just pick it apart from those fundamentals, and keep building things up as you think about these other cave-forming systems and landscapes.

ESA astronauts practice "cavewalking"; image courtesy ESA-V. Corbu.

Manaugh: One of my favorite quotations is from a William S. Burroughs novel, where he describes what he calls “a vast mineral consciousness at absolute zero, thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

Boston: Oh, wow.

Manaugh: I mention that because I’m curious about how the search for “extraterrestrial life” always tends to be terrestrial, in the sense that it’s geological and it involves solid planetary formations. But what about the search for life on a gaseous planet—would life be utterly different there, chemically speaking, or would it simply be sort of dispersed, or even aerosolized? I suppose I’m also curious if there could be a “cave” on a gaseous planet and, if so, would it really just be a weather system? Is a “cave” on a gaseous planet actually just a storm? Or, to put it more abstractly, can there be caves without geology?

Boston: Hmm. Yes, I think there could be. If it was enclosed or self-perpetuating.

Manaugh: Like a self-perpetuating thermal condition in the sky. It would be a sort of atmospheric “cave.”

Twilley: It would be a bubble.

ESA astronauts explore caves in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–R. Bresnik.

Boston: In terms of life that could exist in a permanent, fluid medium that was gaseous—rather than a compressed fluid, like water—Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter made an attempt at that, back in 1975. In fact, I use their "Jovian Gasbags" paper as a foundational text in my astrobiology classes.

But an atmospheric system like Jupiter is dominated—just like an ocean is—by currents. It’s driven by thermal convection cells, which are the weather system, but it’s at a density that gives it more in common with our oceans than with our sky. And we are already familiar with the fact that our oceans, even though they are a big blob of water, are spatially organized into currents, and they are controlled by density, temperature, and salinity. The ocean has a massively complex three-dimensional structure; so, too, does the Jovian atmosphere. So a gas giant is really more like a gaseous ocean I think.

Now, the interior machinations that go on in inside a planet like Jupiter are driving these gas motions. There is a direct analogy here to the fact that, on our rocky terrestrial planet, which we think of as a solid Earth, the truth is that the mantle is plastic—in fact, the Earth’s lower crust is a very different substance from what we experience up here on this crusty, crunchy top, this thing that we consider solid geology. Whether we’re talking about a gas giant like Jupiter or the mantle of a rocky planet like Earth, we are really just dealing with different regimes of density—and, here again, it’s driven by the physics.

ESA astronauts set up an experimental wind-speed monitoring station in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA/V. Crobu.

A couple of years ago, I sat in on a tectonics class that one of my colleagues at New Mexico Tech was giving, which was a lot of fun for me. Everybody else was thinking about Earth, and I was thinking about everything but Earth. For my little presentation in class, what I tried to do was think about analogies to things on icy bodies—to look at Europa, Titan, Enceledus, Ganymede, and so forth, and to see how they are being driven by the same tectonic processes, and even producing the same kind of brittle-to-ductile mantle transition, but in ice rather than rock.

I think that, as we go further and further in the direction of having to explain what we think is going on in exoplanets, it’s going to push some of the geophysics in that direction, as well. There is amazingly little out there. I was stunned, because I know a lot of planetary scientists who are thinking about this kind of stuff, but there is a big gulf between Earth geophysics and applying those lessons to exoplanets.

ESA astronauts prepare for their 2013 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy ESA-V. Crobu.

Manaugh: We need classes in speculative geophysics.

Boston: Yeah—come on, geophysicists! [laughs] Why shouldn’t they get in the game? We’ve been doing it in astrobiology for a long time.

In fact, when I’ve asked my colleagues certain questions like, “Would we even get orogeny on a three Earth-mass planet?” They are like, “Um… We don’t know.” But you know what? I bet we have the equations to figure that out.

It starts with something as simple as that: in different or more extreme gravitational regimes, could you have mountains? Could you have caves? How could you calculate that? I don’t know the answer to that—but you have to ask it.

ESA astronauts take microbiological samples during a 2011 training mission in the caves of Sardinia; image courtesy of the ESA.

Twilley: You’re a member of NASA’s Planetary Protection Subcommittee. Could you talk a little about what that means. I’m curious whether the same sorts of planetary protection protocols we might use on other planets like Mars should also be applied to the Earth’s subsurface. How do we protect these deeper ecosystems? And how do we protect deeper ecosystems on Mars, if there are any?

Boston: That’s a great question. We are working extremely hard to do that, actually.

Planetary protection is the idea that we must protect Earth from off-world contaminants. And, of course, vice versa: we don’t want to contaminate other planets, both for scientific reasons and, at least in my case, for ethical reasons, with biological material from Earth.

In other words, I think we owe it to our fellow bodies in the solar system to give them a chance to prove their biogenicity or not, before humans start casually shedding our skin cells or transporting microbes there.

That’s planetary protection, and it works both ways.

One thing I have used as a sales pitch in some of my proposals is the idea that we are attempting to become more and more noninvasive in our cave exploration, which is very hard to do. For example, we have pushed all of our methods in the direction of using miniscule quantities of sample. Most Earth scientists can just go out and collect huge chunks of rock. Most biologists do that, too. You grow E. coli in the lab and you harvest tons of it. But I have to take just a couple grams of material—on a lucky day—sometimes even just milligrams of material, with very sparse bio density in there. I have to work with that.

What this means is that the work we are doing also lends itself really well to developing methods that would be useful on extraterrestrial missions.

In fact, we are pushing in the direction of not sampling at all, if we can. We are trying to see what we can learn about something before we even poke it. So, in our terrestrial caving work, we are actually living the planetary protection protocol.

We are also working in tremendously sensitive wilderness areas and we are often privileged enough to be the only people to get in there. We want to minimize the potential contamination.

That said, of course, we are contaminant sources. We risk changing the environment we’re trying to study. We struggle with this. I struggle with it physically and methodologically. I struggle with it ethically. You don’t want to screw up your science and inadvertently test your own skin bugs.

I’d say this is one of those cases where it’s not unacceptable to have a nonzero risk—to use a double negative again. There are few things in life that I would say that about. Even in our ridiculous risk-averse culture, we understand that for most things, there is a nonzero risk of basically anything. There is a nonzero risk that we’ll be hit by a meteorite now, before we are even done with this interview. But it’s pretty unlikely.

In this case, I think it’s completely unacceptable to run much of a risk at all.

That said, the truth is that pathogens co-evolve with their hosts. Pathogenesis is a very delicately poised ecological relationship, much more so than predation. If you are made out of the same biochemistry I’m made of, the chances are good that I can probably eat you, assuming that I have the capability of doing that. But the chances that I, as a pathogen, could infect you are miniscule. So there are different degrees of danger.

There is also the alien effect, which is well known in microbiology. That is that there is a certain dose of microbes that you typically need to get in order for them to take hold, because they are coming into an area where there’s not much ecological space. They either have to be highly pre-adapted for whatever the environment is that they land in, or they have to be sufficiently numerous so that, when they do get introduced, they can actually get a toehold.

We don’t really understand some of the fine points of how that occurs. Maybe it’s quorum sensing. Maybe it’s because organisms don’t really exist as single strains at the microbial level and they really have to be in consortia—in communities—to take care of all of the functions of the whole community.

We have a very skewed view of microbiology, because our knowledge comes from a medical and pathogenesis history, where we focus on single strains. But nobody lives like that. There are no organisms that do that. The complexity of the communal nature of microorganisms may be responsible for the alien effect.

So, given all of that, do I think that we are likely to be able to contaminate Mars? Honestly, no. On the surface, no. Do I act as if we can? Yes—absolutely, because the stakes are too high.

Now, do I think we could contaminate the subsurface? Yes. You are out of the high ultraviolet light and out of the ionizing radiation zone. You would be in an environment much more likely to have liquid water, and much more likely to be in a thermal regime that was compatible with Earth life.

So you also have to ask what part of Mars you are worried about contaminating.

ESA teams perform bacterial sampling and examine a freshwater supply; top photo courtesy ESA–V. Crobu; bottom courtesy ESA/T. Peake.

Manaugh: There’s been some interesting research into the possibility of developing new pharmaceuticals from these subterranean biospheres—or even developing new industrial materials, like new adhesives. I’d love to know more about your research into speleo-pharmacology or speleo-antibiotics—drugs developed from underground microbes.

Boston: It’s just waiting to be exploited. The reasons that it has not yet been done have nothing to do with science and nothing to do with the tremendous potential of these ecosystems, and everything to do with the bizarre and not very healthy economics of the global drug industry. In fact, I just heard that someone I know is leaving the pharmaceutical industry, because he can’t stand it anymore, and he’s actually going in the direction of astrobiology.

Really, there is a de-emphasis on drug discovery today and more of an emphasis on drug packaging. It is entirely profit-driven motive, which is distasteful, I think, and extremely sad. I see a real niche here for someone who doesn’t want to become just a cog in a giant pharmaceutical company, someone who wants to do a small start-up and actually do drug discovery in an environment that is astonishingly promising.

It’s not my bag; I don’t want to develop drugs. But I see our organisms producing antibiotics all the time. When we grow them in culture, I can see where some of them are oozing stuff—pink stuff and yellow stuff and clear stuff. And you can see it in nature. If you go to a lava tube cave, here in New Mexico, you see they are doing it all the time.

A lot of these chemistry tests screen for mutagenic activity, chemogenic activity, and all of the other things that are indications of cancer-fighting drugs and so on, and we have orders of magnitude more hits from cave stuff than we do from soils. So where is everybody looking? In soils. Dudes! I’ve got whole ecosystems in one pool that are different from an ecosystem in another pool that are less than a hundred feet apart in Lechuguilla Cave! The variability—the non-homogeneity of the subsurface—vastly exceeds the surface, because it’s not well mixed.

ESA astronauts prepare their experiments and gear for a 2013 CAVES ("Cooperative Adventure for Valuing and Exercising human behaviour and performance Skills") mission in Sardinia; image courtesy ESA–V. Crobu

Twilley: In your TED talk, you actually say that the biodiversity in caves on Earth may well exceed the entire terrestrial biosphere.

Boston: Oh, yes—certainly the subsurface. There is a heck of a lot of real estate down there, when you add all those rock-fracture surface areas up. And each one of these little pockets is going off on its own evolutionary track. So the total diversity scales with that. It’s astonishing to me that speleo-bioprospecting hasn’t taken off already. I keep writing about it, because I can’t believe that there aren’t twenty-somethings out there who don’t want to go work for big pharma, who are fascinated by this potential for human use.

There is a young faculty member at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose graduate student is one of our friends and cavers, and they are starting to look at some of these. I’m like, “Go for it! I can supply you with endless cultures.”

Twilley: In your “Human Mission to Inner Space” experiment, you trialed several possible Martian cave habitat technologies in a one-week mission to a closed cave with a poisonous atmosphere in Arizona. As part of that, you looked into Martian agriculture, and grew what you called “flat crops.” What were they?

Boston: We grew great duckweed and waterfern. We made duckweed cookies. Gus made a rice and duckweed dish. It was quite tasty. [laughs] We actually fed two mice on it exclusively for a trial period, but although duckweed has more protein than soybeans, there weren’t enough carbohydrates to sustain them calorically.

But the duckweed idea was really just to prove a point. A great deal of NASA’s agricultural research has been devoted to trying to grow things for astronauts to make them happier on the long, outbound trips—which is very important. It is a very alien environment and I think people underestimate that. People who have not been in really difficult field circumstances have no apparent understanding of the profound impact of habitat on the human psyche and our ability to perform. Those of us who have lived in mock Mars habitats, or who have gone into places like caves, or even just people who have traveled a lot, outside of their comfort zone, know that. Your circumstances affect you.

One of the things we designed, for example, was a way to illuminate an interior subsurface space by projecting a light through fluid systems—because you’d do two things. You’d get photosynthetic activity of these crops, but you’d also get a significant amount of very soothing light into the interior space.

We had such a fabulous time doing that project. We just ran with the idea of: what you can do to make the space that a planet has provided for you into actual, livable space.

From Boston's presentation report on the Human Utilization of Subsurface Extraterrestrial Environments, NIAC Phase II study (PDF).

Twilley: Earlier on our Venue travels, we actually drove through Hanksville, Utah, where many of the Mars analog environment studies are done.

Boston: I’ve actually done two crews there. It’s incredibly effective, considering how low-fidelity it is.

Twilley: What makes it so effective?

Boston: Simple things are the most critical. The fact that you have to don a spacesuit and the incredible cumbersomeness of that—how it restricts your physical space in everything from how you turn your head to how your visual field is limited. Turning your head doesn’t work anymore, because you just look inside your helmet; your whole body has to turn, and it can feel very claustrophobic.

Then there are the gloves, where you’ve got your astronaut gloves on and you’re trying to manipulate the external environment without your normal dexterity. And there’s the cumbersomeness and, really, the psychological burden of having to simulate going through an airlock cycle. It’s tremendously effective. Being constrained with the same group of people, it is surprisingly easy to buy into the simulation. It’s not as if you don’t know you’re not on Mars, but it doesn’t take much to make a convincing simulation if you get those details right.

The Mars Desert Research Station, Hanksville, Utah; image courtesy of bandgirl807/Wikipedia.

I guess that’s what was really surprising to me, the first time I did it: how little it took to be transform your human experience and to really cause you to rethink what you have to do. Because everything is a gigantic pain in the butt. Everything you know is wrong. Everything you think in advance that you can cope with fails in the field. It is a humbling experience, and an antidote to hubris. I would like to take every engineer I know that works on space stuff—

Twilley: —and put them in Hanksville! [laughter]

Boston: Yes—seriously! I have sort of done that, by taking these loafer-wearing engineers—most of whom are not outdoorsy people in any way, who haunt the halls of MIT and have absorbed the universe as a built environment—out to something as simple as the lava tubes. I could not believe how hard it was for them. Lava tubes are not exactly rigorous caving. Most of these are walk-in, with only a little bit of scrambling, but you would have thought we’d just landed on Mars. It was amazing for some of them, how totally urban they are and how little experience they have of coping with a natural space. I was amazed.

I actually took a journalist out to a lava tube one time. I think this lady had never left her house before! There’s a little bit of a rigorous walk over the rocks—but it was as if she had never walked on anything that was not flat before.

From Venue's own visit to a lava tube outside Flagstaff, AZ.

It’s just amazing what one’s human experience does. This is why I think engineers should be forced to go out into nature and see if the systems they are designing can actually work. It’s one of the best ways for them to challenge their assumptions, and even to change the types of questions they might be asking in the first place.


Inspired by our conversation with Penelope Boston, in which she described to Venue the possibility of extraordinarily ancient lava tubes on Mars (and even the Moon), we decided to visit an earthly example ourselves.



As we looped through Arizona, from the virtual fences of Las Cruces to the lunar training ground of Cinder Lake, we detoured to explore a mile-long lava tube cave in the Coconino National Forest, just outside Flagstaff.

The Lava River Cave, as it's known, was formed roughly 700,000 years ago, when the top and sides of a stream of molten lava cooled while the interior continued to flow, hollowing out the smooth-walled, arched tunnel that still exists today.

The cave is accessible, although not easily: it's on public land and it is well-signposted, but it requires driving on unpaved roads for 15 or 20 minutes through a pine forest, at least part of which appears to be common grazing land, as we drove through a herd of slowly meandering cattle at one point, bovinely eyeing our vehicle as we rolled past, taking photos of them.

Another family were already scrambling out as we began our descent, in a light rain, into the lava tube. We negotiated the basaltic boulders and low, condensation-covered ceiling at the entrance.



Sadly, after just a few minutes spent admiring the extraordinary darkness when we switched off our flashlights, one of us slipped, hit her head, and bruised her tailbone, thus fully living up to Penelope Boston's stereotype of bumbling urban journalists, and handily demonstrating just one of the challenges future Martian explorers might face working and living in subsurface environments.


Photograph of the cave's Y-intersection, where two tubes combine into one, by Flickr user Alan Grosse.

Chastened, we retraced our steps, missing the cave's reportedly spectacular flow ripples (left behind by the last trickles of molten rock), its cooling cracks and unusual Y-shaped split, and we continued on to the roads, motels, farms, mines, landfills, and archives of Venue's onward travels.
There is not a whole lot to say about the Hollow Mountain gas station, other than that Venue arrived in Hanksville, Utah, simply as a stopping off point to get some sleep for the night, and, when we woke up the next morning and went outside looking for a place to get breakfast, we realized—lo!—that just a short walk up the street, a landform had been hollowed out and turned into a convenience store.

We checked out of our hotel and strolled up the road to get something to eat there; we snapped this picture on our way inside; and continued into the mountain, past the handwritten anti-Obama signs taped to the front door, and found ourselves utterly at a loss for anything to purchase or eat.

Instead, we picked up two 5-Hour Energy Drinks and, misunderstanding what they were, some Gu Chomps—choices we would both live to regret—and then promptly got back on the road, looping far out and around the spectacular landscapes of southern Utah—



—till we arrived later that day in Moab, where we'd record our interview with Vicki Webster.
While staying in Moab, Utah, and after interviewing Vicki Webster of the U.S. National Park Service, Venue received a dinner invitation on Twitter from a small community arts organization called Epicenter, located just up the road in Green River.



Green River is both tiny and quite isolated; its population is less than 1,000 people and it seems only to be saved from complete obscurity by the 70 highway that cuts through town, putting it a mere five hours' drive west from Denver.

As it happened, however, we had already marked Green River on our maps, following a tip from Matt Coolidge at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, who told us about the town's open-air uranium containment cell. Eager to check out this radioactive landmark, as well as find out how the folks at Epicenter had managed to set up shop in so small a town in so remote an area, we hopped into our car and headed north out of Moab to meet them.




Over a burger at Ray's Tavern, the (more-or-less only) local hangout spot, we heard the Epicenter backstory. The self-described "rural and proud" community arts organization was founded in 2009 by Jack Forinash, Maria Sykes, and Rand Pinson, all graduates of the Rural Studio at Auburn University, which prides itself on its commitment to training architects to create work that responds to the needs of the community, from within the community’s own context, rather than from the outside.

The three designers first arrived in Green River as AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) in 2008. It quickly became clear that the town was both in sore need of community resources, and small enough to allow for things to get done: "at city council meetings," Maria explained, "we can present our ideas, the five people there vote, and we have an answer—we're not dealing with some obscure bureaucracy."

In 2009, with the help of a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Business Enterprise Grant, Jack, Maria, and Rand purchased a former billiard room turned potato chip storage facility in downtown Green River, redesigned the space, and renovated the structure.



From there, Jack, Maria, and a growing team, augmented by visiting Fellows, run an expanding roster of programs and store all the equipment necessary to build a house. Over dinner and beers, they gave us a picture of the town, and their place within it.

"I'm the only 28-year-old in the entire town," said Maria. "We know all 957 people who live here by name," added Jack. Both agreed Green River's was a different kind of smallness compared to the small towns in the South in which they had worked while at college. We learned that are three melon families (growing 32 varieties at sufficient scale that the entire town is lightly melon-scented, come September), that the median income is $21,000, and that the most desired career in a 6th grade survey was that of a cashier—but we also discussed what it means to be rural now, in an era of urbanism.

Epicenter clearly spends plenty of time and energy learning and trying to respond to the particular needs and opportunities of its community, but beneath that lies a broader curiosity as to how rural might redefine itself, and its relationship with urban, to shift from a pervasive sense of decline (Green River's population has shrunk by half since the 1970s) toward empowerment.




After dinner, the team took us to visit their awesomely picturesque headquarters, from which Epicenter runs a range of programs, from painting a Habitat for Humanity house (seen in the photograph above) and fixing leaky roofs to designing a melon marketing campaign and running arts programs and workshops in local schools.

"We've been given both money and moral support locally, but we've also been called communists," said Maria, when we asked how Green River had responded to Epicenter's activities. "The single most successful thing we've done," Maria told us, "is our guide to what to do around here"—a gorgeous, single-edition "Green River Newspaper," created in collaboration with local high-schoolers.



Outside, we poked our heads in a "Caravan of Curiosities"—the taxidermy-filled trailer in which some of the various Fellows funded by Epicenter have stayed. Then we divided up into two vehicles and spun around town on a short mission to see as many Epicenter-instigated art installations as possible.



These were primarily the work of artist Richard Saxton, created during his residency as a Fellow, and took the form of posters tactically installed on or inside of small structures around town, including, in the images below, the old town jail, an absolutely minuscule hut that now serves as someone's lawn care storage garage.




It felt a bit like an Easter Egg hunt, driving around the small but nonetheless somewhat sprawling town to poke our heads into various out-buildings, gatehouses, and garages to see works of art posted up on the walls.

However, the most surreal part of the evening came about midway through the art tour when, at our request, we took a detour to the edge of town to visit Green River's uranium containment cell.



Pyramidal, internally radioactive, and surrounded by nothing but a dilapidated chain link fence, the dark mound of gravel feels disturbingly post-apocalyptic, a minimalist earthwork more temporally ambitious than anything designed by Robert Smithson. The Green River uranium disposal cell is one of more than thirty constructed by the U.S. Department of Energy over the last twenty-five years, to contain the low-level radioactive waste from processing and power plants.

The Green River uranium cell from above; image by CLUI.

As the Center for Land Use Interpretation describes it:

A disposal mound for radioactive tailings, located at the site of a former uranium mill. The mill was operated by Union Carbide from 1957 to 1961. The mill site was bought by the State of Utah in 1988, and the buildings remain, gutted and abandoned. The DOE took over the disposal operations, and built the mound in 1989. It contains tailings, as well as contaminated material from 17 other properties in the area. The mound is 450 feet by 530 feet, and 41 feet tall. It covers 6 acres, and is surrounded by a chain link fence, ringed by signs warning of radioactivity.


We hovered next to its chain-link fence for about twenty minutes admiring its clean geometry, its carefully engineered gravel exterior designed to shed rainwater and provide an inhospitable surface for plant growth. As we took photographs, we talked about the Great Pyramid of Giza and the absurdity of the Department of Energy's Legacy Management Office, whose responsibility these radioactive monuments are. A small, gravestone-like marker announced a radiation level of 30 Curies. We huddled back into our vehicles and returned to town to finish our tour.

As it happens, if you're interested in exploring (and contributing to) Green River yourself, Epicenter is currently looking for new Fellows.



You have until December 14, 2013, to apply.
 
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