Every week (or so) I post a quick Q&A with one of our bloggers on the network, so you can get to know them better. This week, I chat with Caleb Scharf from Life, Unbounded.
Hello! Let's start with first things first. What is the name of your blog and why did you choose that name - what does it mean?
Life, Unbounded. I knew that I wanted to write mostly about the science that I think is the most exciting at the moment, and that’s the study of exoplanets and the search for life in the universe – not the endlessly speculative “searches” of old mind you, but the modern effort, which is quantitative and rigorous. “Life, Unbounded” has a double meaning, first the suggestion that if life is a fundamental characteristic of our big, big universe there must be a lot of wild stuff out there. The second meaning is a bit of a nerdy science pun, “unbounded” also has a specific mathematical definition, referring to a function that can be arbitrarily large, not bounded above, below, or to the sides. In a sense our current search for an understanding of life in the universe is a bit like that, it’s an unbounded problem. We can’t readily outline the specifics of where or what our search should be, and that in itself is one of our key scientific challenges. We’re tackling it head-on though, by starting with the template of the origins and extremes of life here on Earth, the exploration of our solar system, and hunting for exoplanets and their properties. You can tell I write a lot of research proposals right?
Where does the artwork for your banner come from, and what are you trying to convey with it?
I think there’s an old New Yorker cartoon with a disheveled guy sitting on the sidewalk with a set of appallingly bad paintings, and a little sign that says “All my own work”. My banner is just that, with the helpful addition of billions of dollars worth of space-based imagery. I used a picture of Earth from the International Space Station, showing thunderclouds above the Pacific Ocean, and I also used a Hubble Space Telescope image of part of the Eagle Nebula – a vast structure of gas, dust, and stars about 7,000 light years away. I tweaked the colors and merged the two. Apart from the fact that I think it looks nice, I wanted to convey the sense of connection between our homeworld, and our biosphere, to cosmic processes. All the heavy elements inside us were produced a million miles down inside stars that are long dead, and their death helped form nebulae that gravity acted on to form new stars and new planets. Exactly how this cyclical process works, and how it influences the primitive environment on young worlds like our natal Earth, and how that leads to life is a critical and fundamental question that many people are working on.
Tell us more about yourself - where are you from, how did you get into science?
I’m really a product of the European and Eurasian diaspora, from Russia, Austria, and old, old England, and back and forth from the United States. Mongrel is the correct term. I was born in London and grew up in England. My interest in science goes right back to early childhood, but it was never the straightforward aspects of science that caught my attention; it was always the complex and the subtle. As a very small kid in London I would be taken to places like the British Museum and the Science Museum. Everywhere there were intricate paintings, drawings, machines, books, and skeletons. It seemed like the most interesting thing in the world was to try to make sense of the world! My family later moved to the countryside, and as clichéd as it sounds, suddenly there were dark nights and lo-and-behold all these stars and structures were hanging in the sky that just felt so immense, and so important. I was hooked. One thing led to another and I think the real turning point, where it all crystallized (although to be quite honest it’s still crystallizing on a daily basis) was studying at Cambridge. I’d never been in a place where ideas were so openly discussed and then graciously torn apart, it was great, and taught me to let myself question and explore in a way I hadn’t fully understood before. Since that time, doing research has been my daily bread and butter.
How did you get into science blogging and science writing? What were the early influences on you regarding your blogging style and topics?
Starting a blog wasn’t a particularly spontaneous process for me. I’d finished writing a textbook a couple years earlier (all about exoplanets and astrobiology) and found that I enjoyed doing the more freewheeling, exploratory pieces of that book – compared to dealing with expository maths, and highly quantitative aspects of astrophysics, they were the guilty pleasures. So I wanted to get into more writing for a wider audience and a very good literary agent (now my agent!) suggested I try blogging. At first I had no idea how to approach it, so I did the unscientific thing of diving in headfirst, no research, no clue. I quickly realized that I needed to have some kind of structure and style, so I started reading many, many blogs and online science pieces - some commercial, some by other people like me. I saw what I personally liked to read and what I didn’t. In that sense I guess I owe the whole science blogosphere a debt for letting me perform my own type of Darwinian selection process to inform my approach.
The main inspirations were, and still are, things that I come across that immediately spark an idea for something to say. Journal articles, preprints, news items, lurking ideas that relate to something someone else is working on. I find that doing plenty of reading is vital for writing a blog, and being willing to kill off posts if they’re not turning out well – my trash folder is full of 1/3rd to ½ done posts dropped in disgust.
What is your blog about? Who is your target audience, and why do you think people should read your blog?
Haven’t I already answered this?! The underlying themes of Life, Unbounded are exoplanetary science (the study of planets around other stars) and astrobiology (the study and search for the origins and evolution of life in the universe, and of course the confirmation that it exists somewhere other than Earth). I’m an astrophysicist and cosmologist by training, so it’s naturally biased towards that end of things, but the beauty of these themes is that they are intertwined, and so the blog also talks about the biology in astrobiology. When fascinating discoveries crop up in the physical sciences I’m likely to write about those too, from superluminal neutrinos to, well, to pretty much anything.
My target audience is anyone and everyone with a passing interest in science and in finding out whether we’re alone in the universe. I try to keep jargon in check and I try to tell a story whenever I can, stories are so much more interesting than simple rote explanation, even if its clearly done. Why should anyone read the blog? You mean apart from its priceless wit and entertainment value? Well, in all honesty I genuinely believe that we humans can be in better touch with our humanity if we occasionally stop to remind ourselves of our pitiful, yet utterly remarkable, place in the cosmos. If what I write about can perform that trick in any small, tiny, miniscule way, then I think it’s worth reading in the off chance that it’ll work for you.
Anything else interesting about you, perhaps cool hobbies?
I think I used to be interesting, but now I have two tweenagers, which means that free time is a limited commodity and whatever used to be fascinating about me is long gone. Summer is a big travel time, usually split between the UK and Norway. This seasonal migration has become a defining characteristic. Without the glorious and crazy internet this would be impossible. As it is, I can pretend to be incredibly productive by answering my email at impossibly outrageous hours for people back in New York. I’m also a huge fan of Norway and Norwegians, it’s not only a stunningly beautiful country, it’s also incredibly civilized and humanitarian and reminds me (with some wistfulness) of what a more innocent UK was like when I was growing up. I still love the UK, but apart from the glorious beer, the humo(u)r, and the countryside, it has changed a lot.
In small fragments of spare time I’m also involved with a startup company in New York. Right now we’re developing a very sophisticated system for science education in grade schools and high school. Aspects of this make use of game-learning, so I’ve been lucky enough to indulge my secretive passion for videogames, and I can now almost justify that as “research”. I spin this by saying that if you read one of the game business journals you’ll discover incredible articles on esoteric mathematics and computer science, human psychology, history, language, and even music theory! It’s fascinating how sophisticated an art form this has become, it now more than rivals what Hollywood produces, and often far outdoes it.
Oh, and can I just say, please, please go and check out my pop-sci book (it comes out August 2012) “Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble-Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Universe”. It’s a good read, honest, and was only 14 billion years in the making.
Previously in this series: