Steve Vance is a skydiving, home beer brewing, planetary geophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This week, he talks to us about his passions, hobbies and what it's like to be at the helm of exploratory missions to Mars and Europa!
Tell us about your background. What made you choose a career in astrobiology?
I remember being fascinated as a kid by how small the Earth is relative to the Sun and the outer planets relative to Earth. Growing up, I marveled at new discoveries and theories regarding the fate of the dinosaurs and the origin of the Universe.
While studying physics in college, I had an internship at a company that makes X-ray tubes for medical and industrial applications. One of the most talented engineers there had recently left a graduate program in astronomy. His view of humankind’s future in space really influenced me. Astrobiology was emerging at the time as a new field of study, following the discovery in Antarctica of a meteorite from Mars, ALH84001, that might contain fossil martian life. I decided to apply to a new PhD program in Seattle that would allow me to use my knowledge of physics for understanding the limits to life in other planets.
I started grad school at a time when the Galileo orbiter was returning evidence for a very Earth-like liquid ocean under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa. I was (and still am) transfixed by the idea of volcanoes at the bottom of a 100-mile-deep ocean in a moon the size of ours, and the question of whether anything might live there.
How did you become involved with The Exchange?
I volunteer for the Open House at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which happens every May. Staffing the Outer Planets exhibit one year, I hit it off with a film producer in attendance and began working with his company on a project that had just begun development. The company later reached out to The Exchange. Joining seemed like a good way to continue helping with exciting projects that entertain and inspire audiences to think scientifically.
Were there any films or television shows that influenced your decision to seek a career in science? What were your favorites? What do you watch now?
In high school I clued into Carl Sagan’s poetic exposition of the Universe in Cosmos. As with many of my colleagues, this would turn out to be a defining experience for me. I was also into computer animation, just coming into common use in the early 1990s. The Learning Channel had a show called The Practical Guide to the Universe, hosted by Tom Selleck, which introduced me to some of the latest thinking in astrophysics.
In the arena of movies, Dune and 2001 are among my favorites. Each is epic in portraying a future for humans in space. Their special effects are convincing decades later.
Nowadays, I consume a lot of science-fiction literature. I am especially excited about an adaptation of Ender’s Game (originally written for film) apparently coming out in December 2013. Most recently I watched The Hunger Games and Life of Pi. Each stuck with me for different reasons, but I liked that each took me outside the realm of my daily experience to communicate ideas about human strength and interdependence.
Life on other planets has been the subject of many movies and television shows. Which movies (or television shows) did a really good job of getting the science as right as possible? Care to name any that made errors they should not have made?
If I can pick on Star Trek a little, I was irked by a scene in the most recent film, in which Kirk lands on an icy moon of the planet Vulcan, where food is presumably sparse, and is then doggedly chased by a (admittedly awesome) looking beast. I kept thinking that this predatory animal could only survive by hunting life underneath the ice, like polar bears do, and that it was putting itself at unnecessary risk for a small payoff. On the other hand, the film also included a jump from space directly to the planet Vulcan, which presaged for me the recently successful Red Bull challenge jump of Felix Baumgartner.
I was also in awe at a recently released trailer for the next Star Trek movie, in which the crew visits a planet around an M-type star, on which the plant life is appropriately redder to absorb the most abundant color of light. The scene evoked a delightfully alien sense of nature’s beauty.
My other big gripe is with The Matrix. It does not make sense to use humans as fuel, because our food ultimately comes from the Sun. I keep hoping a series reboot will reveal that the entire three-part saga took place in a meta-matrix, which humans and machines have built together to conserve energy. It turns out this line of thinking figures into the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, which I hope to one day see on film.
What have you enjoyed most about serving as a consultant?
Consulting has brought me into contact with impassioned and creative people who remind me why I do what I do. In every project I have worked on I have tried to impart the notion that science does not have to be secondary to plot. I have come to understand that, sometimes, quick decisions in post-production or shooting mean a sacrifice in terms of science. It has been an honor to be an advocate for science.
What role can the entertainment industry play in encouraging more young people to study science or engineering?
I grew up the early 1980s when E.T. The Extraterrestrial and Flight of the Navigator portrayed advanced technologies and grand government efforts to understand them. These instilled in me a sense of grandeur in the world, and of humanity’s earnest will to do great things. Entertainment is arguably the most powerful tool for empowering people to believe in human drive and ingenuity.
How important is it that the audience sees science portrayed accurately in film and television?
Portraying science accurately in the media has two primary effects. First, it prompts interest in novel concepts. Second, involving scientific concepts and career aspects in film and television encourages audiences to be canny in interpreting ideas in the news and in daily life.
When you are not in the lab, what do you like to do for fun?
I was into skydiving for a while. More recently I have been brewing my own beer. Music is a big motivator for me. I have been known to go karaoke’ing with friends. I also have a host of musical instruments that provide lots of amusement, and a stereo system lets me experience my favorite albums with a fresh ear. I am pretty excited about the DIY movement, particularly by how easy it is to create customizable electronic creations using programmable hardware platforms such as Arduino.