As the 2010s draw to a close I thought I’d reflect on some of the things I’ve written about these past ten years – ranging from books and articles to research papers.
I actually started this decade as a newbie in writing for a general audience. Back on March 24th, 2010 I kicked off my first-ever blog as a total amateur out in the wild. That was the origin point for Life, Unbounded. My first real science post there? It was on a NASA project to drill into the Antarctic Ross ice-shelf at the most unpromising sounding site of Windless Blight.
Things moved along from that point, and by July 2011 Life, Unbounded was headed over to Scientific American’s fledging blog network, where it has somehow remained. While that was going on I was also hard at work on my first pop-sci book: Gravity’s Engines which took a look at black holes as real astrophysical objects, rather than the near-mystical entities of so many stories. That gave me a chance to babble on about my own work in that area, and a particularly fascinating piece of astronomical exploration that captured a new side to a supermassive black hole that existed within a couple billion years of the Big Bang.
Having been infected by the writing bug I started on The Copernicus Complex in 2012, with it sliding onto shelves in 2014. This book explored the tricksy question of our cosmic significance, or lack thereof, but through the lenses of exoplanet discoveries, evolutionary biology, Bayesian statistics and cosmology. The conclusion? We’re probably unique but not significant, with life on Earth having scouted out its own special pathway across four billion years, while likely not being the only place where life has occurred. Along the way I managed to score a couple of pieces at the New Yorker, fulfilling an ambition I never realized I'd had and bringing meteors, planet formation, and supernova explosions to a different audience.
By 2015 I had been lucky enough to get involved with people and projects at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Tech in Japan. Splitting time between home base at Columbia University and ELSI (and accumulating a ridiculous number of airmiles, sorry planetary environment) produced some fun work on questions about the origins of life. That work included trying to sculpt a sense of where the field was heading and research on the fundamentals of how we might relate planetary systems to the (unknown) probability of abiogenesis.
On some of those long trans-Pacific journeys I got to start on The Zoomable Universe, a total departure into the world of illustrated books, with artist-extraordinaire Ron Miller and the fantastic infographic folk at 5W Graphics. It came out really well, in my humble opinion, and literally spans all of physical reality, across 63 orders of magnitude in scale. From the sub-atomic realm of foamy spacetime, to the cosmic realm of our horizon of observability. I also got to write about these concepts over at NPR.
In the meantime, the posts here at Life, Unbounded kept piling up, as did some other pieces. Some of the ones I liked the most were on: the universe of exoplanets (at the NY Times), the present and future challenges of human existence on Earth (at Project Syndicate), life so alien that it is literally in the mathematical fabric of the cosmos, and our own enormous informational baggage (both at Nautilus).
In research I got to work on some lovely projects with terrific scientists. We ran supercomputer models of the climate on slowly rotating terrestrial planets. We threw computer simulations at the perennial questions of the Fermi Paradox (finding a neat “archipelago” solution). And I studied both a very peculiar proposition for how life might change the spin of its host planet, and how entropy’s lesser-known cousin exergy, can inform us about a planet’s capacity for living systems of any kind.
A few of the posts here at Life, Unbounded from the past decade that are fun to revisit include: In Defense of Metaphors in Science Writing, The Long Hard Road to Mars, A Planet on Fire, The Panspermia Paradox, Can Starshot Work? And: The Real Expanse.
Finally, for the 2020s, I'm hard at work on the next book. I don't want to reveal too much yet, but I think it's safe to say that it will be wholly unexpected, challenging, and mind-bending. Turns out that the universe and its complex, living contents have a whole lot of new stories to tell us, hiding in plain sight.