From exploring the ocean depths with James Cameron, consulting on Thor, and fond memories of Cosmos, Kevin Hand, Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s deputy chief scientist for solar system exploration, takes us on a science adventure.

Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become an astrobiologist?

I was very fortunate to grow up in a small town in Vermont. The clear night skies provided an early and powerful connection to the question of “are we alone?” I spent many nights as a young kid sitting around a campfire with my friends, looking up at the stars above. It is interesting now living in Los Angeles and not having that easy, nightly connection to the stars. It feels like something is missing. Thankfully my favorite planet, Jupiter, is bright enough to see even with the Los Angeles light pollution and smog.

Along with the beautiful night sky, I had parents, teachers, and friends who all helped foster a desire to explore and nurtured my curiosity. I feel like I am still asking the same questions I was asking when I was 10, but now I am doing it with a lot more math!

Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science when you were growing up?

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and the Mr. Wizard show were key ingredients for my young brain. I used to recreate many of the experiments done on the Mr. Wizard show, and while all of the Cosmos episodes were great, the one with the whales and communication between intelligent species left a huge impression. As for movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. definitely laid down an early obsession with aliens. I could not wait for the mothership to come!

You have worked with James Cameron on more than one project. How did that relationship get started? We are sure he learned a lot from you. But what did you learn from him?

I got a call one day from my friend George Whitesides, and George had heard through the grapevine that Jim was looking for a young scientist to talk about the search for life on Europa (a moon of Jupiter) while exploring the deep sea hydrothermal vents here on Earth. I fit that bill pretty well and George passed my name on. A few weeks later I found myself climbing into a Russian submersible in the middle of the Atlantic, headed for the bottom of the ocean with Jim and his team.

As for what I have learned from Jim throughout the years? Hmm, many things, and the following will come as no surprise but I can honestly say that Jim is one of the smartest and most creative humans I have ever met. His ability to connect the dots on far-reaching topics – and with great detail – is incredible. We have ongoing debates about the nature of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy and I was delighted to see Avatar provide a bit of an altruistic vision when compared to, for instance, the Terminator story.

But let me just note two particularly impressive traits – his raw talent as an artist and his loyalty to his team. I did not know much about Jim before I started working with him and I was continually amazed at his craftsmanship – even though he is famous for his blockbuster movies he could have been a very successful artist and/or novelist. He is a master of every step of the process that it takes to create his movies – from drawing and writing the story to building the cameras and getting the shot he wants; it is impressive. That kind of skill and discipline has definitely inspired me to work harder on the various projects I pursue. Regarding his team and loyalty – Jim would have been great on the battlefields of the Revolutionary War … save for the fact that he is Canadian. He is a strong and focused leader. He pushes himself hard, and he pushes those around him hard to get great things done. With that drive comes a great respect for the people on his team who rise to the challenge. His dedication and passion for his team – his family and friends – is very inspiring.

You have consulted on several projects, including the movie Thor, for The Exchange. Tell us about your input on that film. Can you give us a couple of examples of questions you were asked? Was your advice followed? Why do you think audiences find superheroes appealing?

The Thor team was keen on brainstorming with me about how to take the mythological worlds of the Thor legend and turn them into somewhat habitable and believable worlds for the big screen. For instance, we had long discussions about why it would be physically impossible to have flat, disk-shape worlds with large mountains … the kind you see in picture books about Thor. In this case you just have to keep in mind that gravity is an equal opportunity force – it is pulling in all directions with similar strength. This is why we end up with spherical planets.

I also showed the team lots of pictures of the bizarre ice-covered moons of the outer solar system – moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. These worlds are quite dramatic with their cracked ice and craters and I think it helped the creative team formulate a vision for the world of the ice gods in the movie.

Did they follow my advice? To some extent I think they did, but obviously when it comes to the scenes with the “bridge” in space and the characters breathing in space … no, that does not work, they would die. But is it a cool scene? Does it work for the story? You bet.

My philosophy when it comes to improving the representation of science in cinema and television is that there is no need to compromise a good story for the sake of getting the science exactly right. A bad movie that gets all of the science right does little to get people excited about science. A great movie that gets some of the science right exposes people to some new ideas and hopefully advances everyone’s critical-thinking skills a wee bit further than where they were when they entered the theater.

 Is there a storyline you would like to see in a television show or movie that involves an aspect of science that has not yet been covered?

Ocean worlds of the outer solar system – the moons I mentioned above, in particular Jupiter’s moon Europa – are prime places in our search for life beyond Earth. These moons have liquid water oceans beneath their icy crusts. The oceans are there today and have likely been there for the history of the solar system. Europa is a prime target in our search for life beyond Earth and yet hardly anyone knows about it! Mars has long been a cinematic favorite – and I love Mars – but I hope to see a little bit of the spotlight shine on Europa in the years to come!

Although Americans are fascinated by space exploration and the possibility of life on other planets, relatively few students choose to pursue careers in your field. What role can the entertainment industry play in encouraging more young people to study science and engineering?

Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I think the entertainment industry can do a lot to help instill knowledge and values in young people that could help lead to a brighter future. I worry when I see the modern day obsession with fame and fortune without the work ethic needed to actually accomplish anything of value. The entertainment industry feeds many narcissistic aspects of our society and I would love to see that change. Obviously there is a chicken-and-egg problem here – are certain people and shows popular because that is what society wants to watch? Or do such shows train people to desire certain things? Resolving that question is above my pay-grade, but I do think there is a lot of room for providing on-screen role models that add value to society. I think the entertainment industry can point to many hospital- and crime-based shows that have likely inspired kids to become doctors, nurses, cops, lawyers, and detectives. Along with those shows, I would like to see shows that celebrate the importance of teachers, professors, engineers, and scientists. And I would like to see it done without appealing to all the obvious stereotypes for social awkwardness and bad fashion!


Image credit: Kevin Hand