The question of whether or not life exists on other planets is an important and interesting one. But maybe the more intriguing question is, “what if it does?” In this episode of Tiny Matters, Sam and Deboki chat with science writer Jaime Green about what it would mean for life to exist beyond Earth. Her book, “The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos,” is a mix of history, astronomy, biology, philosophy, and sci-fi, and just hit store shelves.
Transcript of this Episode
Sam Jones: One of the most powerful questions we can ask about the universe is: are we alone? It’s a question humans have been trying to answer for centuries. And as technology and our scientific understanding of our world and how to look for other worlds has evolved, we’ve gone through cycles of feeling sure that there must be some other place in the cosmos where life exists and then feeling less sure and instead more sure that we are indeed alone. The question of whether or not life exists is an important and interesting one. But maybe the more intriguing question is, “what if it does?”
Welcome to Tiny Matters, I’m Sam Jones. In today’s episode, Deboki and I chat with science writer Jaime Green whose book The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos just hit bookstore shelves. In it, she focuses on the “what if” and how our wondering about what is out there has shaped and been shaped by our values, fears, and unwavering hope.
The book is a mix of history, astronomy, biology, philosophy, and it dives into fictional worlds constructed by sci fi authors that give us a glimpse into what life elsewhere might look like. Deboki and I chatted with Jaime about some of that sci fi as well as the science of course, the work of institutions like SETI which stands for the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” and big discoveries that have been made in the last 50 years or so. We also get a little philosophical about what it actually means to be human and how our human biases shape our explorations beyond Earth. I hope you enjoy it.
[Tiny Matters intro music]
Sam: Hi, Jaime. It's really nice to have you.
Jaime Green: Thank you. It's good to be here.
Sam: We're excited to talk with you. Deboki, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think speaking for both of us, oftentimes we're afraid of talking about space and physics, so this was a treat. It was such a fun book.
Jaime Green: Thank you.
Sam: All right, so I'm going to start at the beginning of the book. So you open up the book by talking about your relationship with the night sky and how it scared you as a kid, how you felt like the stars were watching you. When did that relationship change, because you of course don't feel that way now, and how did it change?
Jaime Green: Yeah. I've always been an easily spooked person. I was going to say easily spooked kid, but I haven't totally ever grown out of that. It started to change when I started to really understand what was out there. In the book, I talk about this being about science fiction, about starting to encounter aliens and science fiction, and so space wasn't just this big black unknown, it was where the Enterprise was zipping around. I started being able to imagine planets around all of those stars, and so instead of them just being this vast unknown darkness, they were places where maybe someone lived. I also think part of it was starting to learn about astronomy. The Hubble Deep Field came out when I was a little older, but understanding not just the vastness of space, but the richness of it, and that there were so many cool things out there both scientifically and in stories that I could imagine.
Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, that totally makes sense. So you write then the question most often too often asked about extraterrestrial life is whether or not. The fact is, that's a very boring question, and then you go on to say, "What we should really be asking is, "What if?" So I guess related to this expanse of everything out there, why do you think that question of, "What if?" Why do you think that's the more interesting question?
Jaime Green: I think that's the more interesting question because it opens up possibilities whether or not is binary and it shuts things down. I know odds aren't binary, but it's really like what are the odds between yes or no? It doesn't make space for multitudes, for possibilities, for variation. As I write in the book, odds and whether or not are important scientific questions, if you can't answer a yes or no question, you can approach it scientifically rigorously through odds. But for something you want to read a book about, I think it's much more interesting to imagine possibilities because asking, "What if?" Opens doors, asking, "Whether or not?" Closes doors. You have the yes door and the no door, and then you want to shut one of them, but, "What if?" Opens lots more doors. This isn't just a sci-fi thing or an imaginative thing. It is also how a lot of science works.
One of my many jobs that I have as a freelancer is I work with PhD students in the sciences on writing their NSF fellowship applications. And part of that application is a research proposal. One of the things I find myself asking them very often about their research proposals is, once you answer this question, what other questions will that allow you to ask? Once you walk through this door, what are all the other doors that open off of that hallway? So I think that asking, "What if?" It's what we ask in science fiction, it's what we ask when we look at the stars and imagine, but it is also a question that's asked very often in science. It opens up possibilities, and it opens up also an understanding of relationships. What if planets are like this? What would that mean about life? What if life begins like this? What would that mean about the possibilities for evolution? What if evolution works like this? Then what can we imagine? So it's a way of testing out lots of different ideas and exploring them rather than trying to reduce the possibilities down to a definitive answer.
Sam: Yeah, I love that. And we are going to ask you a bit about the, "What if?" surrounding evolution a little bit later.
Jaime Green: Okay.
Sam: So in the intro of your book, you write, "We're now at the brink of being able to answer questions that have obsessed humans since we've known how to ask, does life exist beyond what we know? Is life in the cosmos common, rare, or even unique? Are we alone? Except we felt that we're on the brink of these answers for decades." And I loved that. I feel like as I was reading it, I was thinking, haven't we been asking this for a while? Then you said, "We've been on the brink of these answers for decades," so could you share a couple of moments in history, maybe your favorites where humanity or at least scientists felt like, "Okay, this is it, and soon we’re gonna know if we're alone or not"
Jaime Green: A big one for me is the Viking missions to Mars, which launched in 1975. These were the first spacecraft that landed on Mars, the first pictures that we took of the Martian surface. Something that really blew my mind was that before this mission, some people thought that when we landed on Mars, we might find grass, we might find fields, we might find obvious abundant life. Really throughout the history of learning about Mars, it's been reducing the Earth likeness. At first, a hundred, 200 years ago, people thought there were other people on Mars, and it's like, "Okay, those are not canals on Mars. Those are channels. There are no people there, but maybe it's wet, maybe it's jungly, maybe there's grass," all the way up to the seventies. The more we learn about Mars, the less likely it seems like there's active life there.
So we're like at this point really just trying to squeeze it for anything. But in the mid-seventies before we had landed anything on Mars, we really didn't know. My understanding is that there was real hope that the Viking Lander would land and it would be like, "Oh, there's life. We got it." Even still, even though it landed on an arid, not obviously living surface, that Lander had testing equipment on board to look for life in Martian soil. It's really the only time that we've tested Mars for life. All the other Mars research has been looking for habitability for past signs of life, but these were experiments looking to find microbes in the soil and proof of their activity. It's really funny, even now, some people say, "Oh, it's clear that that didn't find life." Some people say, "That was really ambiguous, and we did not continue pursuing those questions in ways that we could have."
But before that, very ambiguous and still somewhat contested test happened, I think a lot of people were like, "All right, here we go. Let's see those martian microbes." We definitely didn't get a definitive answer. The other thing that I was thinking about when I wrote that bit of the book is SETI and looking for signals or proof of technology radio waves from other planets. That's mostly coming from conversations that I've had with SETI practitioners, readings that I've done of interviews from decades and decades ago. It seems like it feels like it's always right around the corner. People saying, "Oh, I think in the next 20 to 30 years we'll get a signal," which is based on nothing but human hope. It's a lot like conversations about the singularity actually, which I talk about later in the book. The singularity always seems to be 20 to 25 years away, whether you're talking in 1990 or now. I find that really curious, just those predictions that are able to reach a certain distance in the future. It's like, "Well, that feels far enough that we will reach this dramatic turning point."
Deboki: Yeah. Yeah, one of my favorite lines was actually later in the book, when you're talking about SETI, I think one of the scientists you were talking to compared it to alchemy, how alchemy basically transformed into chemistry. I love that because it feels like it's not just about we're on the verge of finding something. It feels like what it's also about is we're on the verge of figuring out what we're even trying to figure out. We're trying to figure out, how do we do this? What are we actually looking for?
Jaime Green: Yeah. I write in the book about a couple really young scientific fields. SETI started basically in 1960. Also, the study of the origin of life is about similarly old. I mean these are questions that people have been asking for centuries, but the scientific field as we know it now, they're really young fields. Astrobiology. We found the first exoplanets in 1995 or something. So we're just beginning to collect the data and see what's out there and figure out what questions to ask and how to ask them, and what foundation do we need in these fields? Whereas things like biology and chemistry and physics, we've got centuries and centuries of really the lineage of the modern field goes back really far. But for these other fields, they're just so much younger.
Deboki: Yeah. One of the bigger questions that a lot of this ends up building to both through the sci-fi parts of the book, but also the science and towards this bigger question of what does it mean to be human? I was wondering if you could explain that a little, and also as you wrote this book, did you find yourself approaching that question in different ways or just your own ideas about it changing?
Jaime Green: As I spent a lot of time in this research and thought about sci-fi in new ways, I've read sci-fi since I was 12, 14, something like that. But it's always just been fun. I'm not a literary scholar. I don't have a PhD in sci-fi studies. I don't have a PhD at all. But reading a bunch of sci-fi altogether and in this context and looking at it and seeing patterns and then reading some work by actual scholars and getting their frameworks as well, I started realizing that both the science and the sci-fi are ways of trying to figure out our place in the universe. What does our existence mean in context? Because what we really lack is context. We don't have other kinds of people to compare ourselves to. We don't have other examples of biospheres to compare Earth's life to.
So we don't know what to make of it. We don't know if we're average, we don't know if we're special. We don't know if we are big or small in any sense of the word. And something that I see in sci-fi a lot is when humans meet aliens, the aliens tell us about ourselves. This happens in contact both in the movie and in the book. When Ellie, the main character meets the alien, he says things to her like, "You're an interesting species. You have so many dreams, you're so full of love." This happens in Octavia Butler's book "Dawn" the alien tells the human that humans and all life on earth is hierarchical. It's like, okay, "I guess that isn't how life is everywhere else." This is a big thing in Star Trek too, that we are contextualized on a spectrum among some of the other major species.
So Vulcans are very logical. Klingons are very war-like, Ferengi very greedy, and of course, humans then are the average. We're a little bit of everything, but they're just all these examples where we understand ourselves in comparison to other alien species. I think that's a big thing that we want. We want other people to talk to and be like, "Oh, how do you do this? How do we do this?" Now we understand different ways of engaging with the world instead of just this one example that we have. I actually, in writing the book, discovered much more of a connection to other life on Earth. So we were talking before we started recording about how this is a space and astronomy book, but it's not only that, there's a whole chapter on evolutionary biology. There's a lot about linguistics and cognitive science, cellular biology, and that stuff was the newer stuff for me in researching this.
I had written about and read a lot about exoplanets, astrobiology, SETI, that was what I was familiar with, but learning a lot more about how just life as we know it works. I'm really thinking about what we're looking for when we're looking for alien life. Then I found myself looking at the life around me and just finding a deeper appreciation for it. I write about this in the book of being in my backyard and seeing a bird and being like, “a bird!” They're so different. They're so weird and amazing, and that's just the life that we're seeing every day out the window. Then there's stuff like whatever's in the deep sea or microbes that can get energy from radiation. Like what?
Just these amazing differences and learning about the study of the origin of life and just how our cells work and how they use energy in the incredibly complex machinery in every cell of every organism on earth. That was just really, really mind-blowing to me and really amazing and felt so important. I've always thought of myself as a space and astronomy person, but it really was a Wizard of Oz thing where it's like I found so much in my own backyard, literally. My backyard out the window over there where I'm pointing right now.
Sam: In your book, you also talk a lot about what we humans consider to be life from our own biases. NASA even defines life as a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution. That's a very human-centric approach. So in your book, you cite some writing by evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos who you also interviewed, and he writes, "Even if life were carbon based and the genetic code were based on something like DNA, the rules of inheritance and evolution might be very different." And you said that that perspective completely stopped you in your tracks. I felt the same when I read it because I felt kinda bad like, "Oh, of course, I would think that if something had carbon and had a lot of the building blocks we have, evolution would just go the same way." So I'm wondering what about reading that and maybe talking with Jonathan threw you, even in a positive or eye-opening way?
Jaime Green: Yeah, it was such a great moment, and it was one of those great moments of being a writer where I was reading this book. I didn't have plans to interview him. He wrote a wonderful book about evolution and convergence, and I was like, "Great, this will be great research." Then I got to that and I was like, "I need to talk to this man." I emailed him and I was like, "What? What?" And he was gracious enough to talk to me. I don't think that it's just an Earth-centric assumption to think that life elsewhere would follow Darwinian evolution, because at least for me, I learned that as a law of life believing that if you drop a rock from a tower on another planet, it's going to hit the ground and we accept, and it's foundational that the laws of physics are consistent throughout the universe.
But the thing is, we don't actually know what the laws of biology are. This also comes back to that question of defining life. Something that I talk about a little bit in the book that I'm actually working on another piece about now is that some scientists and philosophers of science think that we're really running into trouble when we focus on defining life because what we actually need is a scientific theory of life because we use definitions for human created concepts. You can define what a chair is or what a bachelor is. These conceptual, human invented boundaries. It’s that whole thing, that “is a hotdog, a sandwich?” because a sandwich is a human concept, but life we hope is a fundamental characteristic of the universe. It's not a conceptual invention. It's a thing like gravity or light or water.
Philosopher of science, Carol Cleland points out that before we understood that water is H2O, people would try to define water as this water is a clear odorless, drinkable liquid, except that muddy water is not clear. Dirty water is not drinkable. Brackish water is stinky. So trying to define it with just what we could see and observe, we didn't have this fundamental understanding the same way that Einstein gave us a fundamental understanding of what gravity is. It's not something that we can see that it's the bending of space-time, right? We don't have that for life. No definition of life includes everything you want it to include and excludes everything that you want it to exclude. And so Darwinian evolution is a fundamental law of life on Earth-ish.
You actually can argue that bacteria and archaea do not mainly only ... They use so much horizontal gene transfer that it's like, "Well, is inheritance really the main driver of change and evolution among prokaryotes?" I think that's debatable, but I'll leave that to the experts. So when it comes to Darwinian evolution for animals for multicellular life, it is fundamental on earth. But we don't know, and Losos actually argues that it is not necessarily fundamental to life overall. Like I said, if your main way of transmitting new genes is by a horizontal gene transfer instead of inheritance, Darwinian evolution goes right out the window. If you don't have species boundaries, if anyone can combine their genes with another organism, you don't have Darwinian evolution, then it's actually more like the genes are competing for evolution rather than various species.
If for whatever reason, it's not competitive and survival of the fittest, if fitness doesn't matter for survival for some reason, you don't have Darwinian evolution. It really put things in perspective for me of how weird and how different life elsewhere could be that a lot of the things that we take for granted. Right off the bat, I'm like, "We shouldn't take it for granted that alien people would be bipedal and have a head up top and eyes and noses, whatever." But the list of things that we shouldn't take for granted is much longer and goes much deeper into the assumed fundamentals than I realized before I started working on this.
Sam: Yeah, absolutely.
Deboki: So we've been really in the comfort zone that Sam and I love the biology of it all, but we should probably venture into the less comfortable zones of Space. Specifically, I would love to know more about the planet side. I love the way that your book is divided up. You have this whole section on just what would a planet be like for housing life? I'd love to know more about what are the things that scientists are taking into account when they're trying to figure out? Can a planet be habitable and what's the most likely nearby contender?
Jaime Green: Habitability is a really ... We sort of ended up with a bad term for it because when scientists talk about, "Is a planet habitable?" They're talking about the potential for liquid water on the surface. That's it. Habitable does not mean hospitable to life. Habitable does not mean Earth-like, habitable definitely does not mean inhabited. Even the scientists who work on this are like, "Yeah, it doesn't mean what it sounds like." So the nearest habitable planet is Proxima Centauri b, which is 4.2 light years away. It is orbiting the closest star, Proxima. That's in the name. So Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf. So the planet, which is I think a little bit bigger than Earth as far as we know, but is probably rocky and is the right distance from its planet so that if it has an atmosphere, the surface is the right temperature for liquid water. That's what habitability means, and there are so many other factors. If a planet is like 10% more massive than the earth, it might hold onto too much atmosphere and have a crushing atmosphere and the atmosphere pressure, and it'll be so thick.
The zone between a big earth and a little Neptune is very hard to decipher and hard to untangle. We also find a lot of “habitable,” planets around red dwarfs, partly because they're easier to find. It's just the bias of the detection methods that we have. But also red dwarfs are super common and are super long-lived, these are smaller cooler stars, so their lifespans are much longer than a star that burns hotter like our sun. And so the habitable zone of a cooler star is very close to the star. So then you get orbital weirdness is where the planet might be tidally locked to the star, which means that just like the moon always shows the same face to the earth, the planet might always show the same face to its star, but with a star, that means one side of the planet is always in daylight. One side of the planet is always in darkness, which can do very weird things to weather, to the climate. And also, red dwarfs can be very active. They're shooting all sorts of radiation at the planet.
So just because the planet is a rocky planet in the habitable zone does not mean that it's a good place for life, for life as we know it. Maybe life is super adaptable, maybe ... I don't know. Life finds a way. So that's what habitability means. Our detection methods so far for planets are also just biased. We need to see several orbits to confirm that the planet is there. If we're looking for habitable planets, the ones with the shortest orbits are the ones orbiting red dwarfs because the habitable zone where there could be liquid water on the surface is very close to the star because the star is dim. So we have a blind spot with actual Earth-like situations so far. You can make very reasonable guesses with slightly different assumptions and end up with very different outcomes for just how many Earth-like planets there actually are. But does a planet need to be Earth-like for there to be life on it, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We are just stuck in a wheel of our own assumptions.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, so related to that, you write that understanding the different kinds of planets that might be out there leads us to ask, “on how weird of a world could life flourish?” So just as a fun mental exercise, how weird do you think it could be?
Jaime Green: I think it could be pretty weird because if we look at inhospitable environments on earth, they're full of life. They're not full of plants and animals. They're full of microbes, but there are bacteria and archaea everywhere, living off everything. They're in rocks, they're in Antarctica, they're in toxic sludge, they're in gasoline, they're in radioactive minds and whatever. So I think that single celled, not complex structured life, prokaryotes the stuff without a nucleus, without internal structure, all that simple cells can probably, ugh, I don't know. Because they can survive in so many environments, but what kind of environment does the origin of life need?
If you've got a radioactive sludge planet, that's great. Do you have an environment that will get life started? Because we have no idea how life began. There is huge debate about what kind of environment, what kind of raw materials it needs, and I talk about that in the first chapter because you have to talk about how life begins in order to understand where it might be. I think being able to survive in an environment is a lot easier than being able to arise in that environment. So that's where I'm like, "Ooh, I don't know."
Deboki: But I like the idea that maybe we could just also be a little irresponsible and accidentally dump some bacteria on the toxic sludge planet and see.
Jaime Green: Whoops.
Deboki: Like I said, I love the way that you structure this book, but clearly, there are so many directions this book could have gone in terms of the topics scientifically, but also the science fiction works that you included. How did you decide what to focus on and how to structure this book and how to weave all of these things together?
Jaime Green: The structure came to me almost from the very beginning. I was actually at an event where Carl Zimmer was talking about his book "Life's Edge" which is about the line between alive and not alive, which again is very relevant to a lot of what I'm doing. But he was talking about something about his writing process. I don't remember what he said, but I remember jumping up and running to the hallway where my bag was and grabbing my notebook and writing out either these six chapters, or sometimes there was a seventh chapter about communication that eventually got folded into one of my six chapters. These were the questions, these were the topics. These are the things you need to consider in order to be able to imagine life. I realized afterwards that this is probably very inspired by the Drake equation. The Drake equation is it's not actually a mathematical equation that you can solve for.
It was devised by Frank Drake, who's the father of SETI for meeting in 1961, where he was basically setting the agenda where they were talking about SETI, and it was like, "Okay, these are the things that we need to know in order to know how many civilizations might be out there transmitting signals right now." That number of civilizations is the product of a bunch of factors like the rate of star formation, how many stars have planets, how many of those planets tend to be Earth-like, on how many Earth-like planets life arises, et cetera, et cetera. So this idea of these are the considerations that give you your answer. It was really that way of thinking about it that I'm sure was going under the surface when I came up with this way of writing about the book, but it's like these are also the big questions and the big topics. Life is on planets. Planets.
How does life evolve that I call it animals, but just the question of whether even complex big life on another planet would be something that we could call animals is a huge open question. It's weird. The structure was always clear to me and was always necessarily what it was. A lot of people, when they start writing a non-fiction book, you sell a book proposal, you don't write the whole book before you've sold it. Thank goodness. And so many people, their structure changes and as they're writing it and really get into it, and for me, a lot changed about the book, but the structure was just like is the idea for me, these are the things I want to look at. For better or worse, I just was always stuck on that particular structure and the order of it too, even though it means that you don't see any aliens until the third chapter, because I start with the origin of life and then planets, but it went from beginning to end. It increased in complexity. It's linear to me, even though it's not a linear narrative or anything.
Sam: To me, the structure also made a lot of sense, and I think it helped me ... It was this right building knowledge throughout the book so that then you could really consider this alien life, right? You have the basis to work off of. I felt like it was very complete, but I'm curious now at the end of it, looking back, were there ideas from science or science fiction that you didn't get to explore in the book that you find exciting and wish you could have or just didn't quite work with your structure?
Jaime Green: The only thing I can think of, there are two things. One, after finishing the book, I learned a lot more about the origin of complex cells on earth and wish that I could have written about that, even though it doesn't super fit in. There was some stuff that I learned where I was like, "Oh, I wish I could have put just a paragraph on that," because I find it really, really fascinating. Just when we think about what are the odds of there being life on other worlds, that moment that the origin of complex cells where one simple cell gobbled up another and that one that got gobbled up eventually turned into our mitochondria and changed everything. That is fascinating to me. The other thing is I have half a chapter on the study of the origin of life, and that's something that when I was writing that I was like, "Oh, I could just keep going."
It's something that I'm trying to write more about now. There were questions that I have for the researchers I spoke to, things that came up in interviews that didn't get to fit, that it's not cutting room floor, but it's the things that stayed with me that I didn't get to really do completely. It's not even that I didn't get to do them completely, but it's like I could have kept going, whereas I at this point have written everything I need to write about exoplanets. I've been writing about exoplanets for a decade. They're amazing. We keep learning new things. I'm done. I love them, but I'm not curious about them anymore. But the origin of life is the thing that I finished this book still being really, really curious about.
Deboki: That totally makes sense. I guess maybe that feeds into our next question. As you were working on this, and we talked about this a little bit with the evolution idea as well, were there any scientists whose perspectives were particularly surprising to you, particularly challenging as you were working on the book?
Sam: Sorry, I'm just going to cut in really quickly because when I was thinking of this question as I was reading, it came up in a really striking way when you were talking with ... Is it Abel Mendez?
Jaime Green: Yes, Abel Mendez.
Sam: Abel Mendez. When he first said, "I don't know, I find life here is more interesting." I'm like, "Wait, what? Aren't you an astrobiologist? What's your job?" Yeah, so.
Jaime Green: Yeah, he's an astrobiologist. He maintains the catalog of habitable exoplanet, so he's like, who's in my head when I'm talking about what habitability means technically and what those planets are. That comes from his website. So when I talked to him, he said that the more he learns about exoplanets, about astrobiology, the less he cares if there's life on other worlds. I was like, "What? Really?" That really surprised me. That's the last thing that I expected. I've talked to other researchers who study the origin of life or are looking for life on other worlds who think that we're never going to have a decisive answer, but they're okay with that.
That really never having a decisive answer. I'm like, "Yeah, no, I can see how that's going to be the case," that they're okay with that. Science is a very gradual step-by-step process. There are big, "Aha," moments, but they're mostly aren't. They're mostly your small contributions, and there's a kind of patience and humility that is required for that work that I definitely would not share, and that I find really, really mystifying and admirable and alien to me, that you could spend your whole life devoted to questions that are never going to get answered in your lifetime.
Sam: Yeah. Yeah, or setting up experiments where you hope that the next generation of scientists will pick it up because you'll be dead by the time you get results.
Jaime Green: Yeah.
Sam: Yeah. That's a wild thing to think about.
Sam: We would love some recommendations or a recommendation from you about science fiction. I guess speaking for myself, Deboki, maybe you've read more science fiction than me, but I'm a total novice. Is there a book or maybe even an author that you think would be great for listeners to start with if this is not a genre that they're used to?
Jaime Green: Oh, my gosh.
Sam: There's so many.
Jaime Green: There's many. So it depends what your jam is. I would never forgive myself if I didn't recommend Ursula Le Guin, who I sneak her into the book three times, but her aliens are very closely related to humans. They share a common origin. So I couldn't really write about her aliens, but I was like, "Ursula's got to be in here because she is ..." I'm wearing a "Wizard of Earthsea" shirt right now, but her sci-fi is beautiful. Her parents were anthropologists, I think, and so it's this very humane, anthropological understanding people. She writes beautiful love stories into her sci-fi. So my favorite of hers is "The Dispossessed."
If you want spaceships, she has a novella called "Paradises Lost" that is set on a generation ship, like a 300-year journey, and those are books that are really about human nature, but they're beautiful, beautiful, brilliant sci-fi. If you want aliens, I would say either "Semiosis" by Sue Burke, "Embassytown" by China Miéville has more space stuff and weird aliens. It is a more dense, almost dreamlike book. "Semiosis" I feel like I'm watching a movie. “Embassytown,” I feel like I'm wandering through fog, but in a really beautiful, compelling way. So those would be the three. But I was really devoted to the idea that almost without exception, every piece of fiction that I write about in the book is something that I love.
The only exceptions are I don't love Avatar, but the Ecology in it is so cool that I had to write about it, and I didn't love the experience of reading "Solaris" because it's very 1950s, dude sci-fi. It really does not do its women right, but the sci-fi aspects of it are so fascinating. But other than that, every book that I write about is something I love and recommend, so it's really hard to pick favorites. But I guess if you're just starting out in sci-fi, which blows my mind, how could you love science and not love sci-fi? I guess it happens. Those are the ones that ... But then there's "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell, which is also so beautiful. It's all so good. Sci-fi is so great.
Sam: I think listeners need to just get your book, and then they will have ...
Jaime Green: They'll have a reading-
Sam: Massive list that they can pull from.
Jaime Green: Yeah. It was so much fun. It was so much fun to be like, "I have to work on my book today, going to go read this Octavia Butler novel." What terrible homework. It was the best. It was the absolute best.
Deboki: Did your love of sci-fi predate your love of science itself, or were those very intertwined?
Jaime Green: They both go back before I can remember, my dad was showing me the stars when I was five, and I think we started watching Star Trek when I was seven, which is the age I was when I read "A Wrinkle in Time," which is sort of sci-fi. I was a voracious reader of everything. When I was 10, my mom was reading a novel and I was sitting reading over her shoulder. She was like, "All right, we got to get your own books, your own [inaudible 00:39:52] books." I didn't really think about genre when I was growing up. I just read books that I loved, whether it was "Little House on the Prairie" or "A Wrinkle in Time."
Sam: Did writing this book make you think about our universe or your place in it differently? Because there was this one point in the book where you're in the process of writing, and in 2020 there's this chemical signature that's detected on Venus. Correct? I'm not getting this wrong, and you had a moment where I think in the book you wrote something like, "It felt so good to feel so insignificant for a moment with everything else going on," and maybe that doesn't fully tie into how writing this book made you think about our universe or place in it differently, but it was just a moment where I was like, "Okay, Jaime was definitely being impacted by this stuff or thinking about it a lot as she was writing."
Jaime Green: I felt like that moment of in fall 2020, this was a really good distraction and it was really good context for perspective and to have something scientific to be excited about because at that time, all science was all COVID all the time, and to feel that kind of connection and hope and to have our perspective broadened beyond Earth, beyond the US because it was important news. It wasn't fluff. It was potentially super momentous, and it had nothing to do with politics. It had nothing to do with America. It had nothing to do with people.
It was just like, "Oh, good." I think for me, it was mainly feeling more connected to life in general, feeling more kinship with other life on earth. Just learning that the way that all life on Earth has the foundational biochemical similarities. We all use these certain enzymes or these certain chemical pathways or whatever it is, realizing how close in evolution we and other animals are because there's such a huge spread of life. The animals that we think of as different are so close to us, and even plants. I look around and just feel more connected. It's so cheesy, but it's true.
Sam: I think it's nice. Cheesy stuff is nice sometimes. Amazing. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Jaime Green: Of course, and thank you so much for having me here and for reading the book. This is something that lived between me and my computer for years and lived just in my head for years before that, so it's really amazing to talk to people about it because they've read it. I'm just really grateful for that.
Sam: I'm excited that it's going to be out in the world. It's one of those books that I think I wish I had been able to read years ago because I think it would have, so I think because it's such a great combination of so many things, so there's the biologist in me that really was drawn to those sections, but I think because it was then part of something bigger, I was drawn to everything that also surrounded it, and I think bringing in so much sci-fi, I felt like I was just had this kind of a bit of a movie going where I'd pop around from sci-fi to the science, you're in the lab, you're in space, you're in some magical realm, and I really loved it. I thought it was great.
Jaime Green: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
Sam: Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society.
The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and the Charts & Leisure team. Our artwork was created by Derek Bressler.
Thanks so much to Jaime Green for chatting with us. We’ve left a link to where you can find her book in the episode description. You can find me on social at samjscience. And don’t forget, we have Tiny Matters mugs now! I’ll leave a link for that.
See you next time.