I'm beginning to feel like a rap god, rap god
Who thinks their arms are long enough to slap box, slap box?
-Eminem, "Rap God"
Mr. Nem is pretty brilliant in that song, a seven-minute cyclone of science fiction and comic
book references, but it's definitely not PG-13, so I won't link to it from here. Just as clearly,
Eminem is not a team player. Science journalists and other storytellers love stories of inflated
ego, like the Bone Wars of paleontology, because they sell--but that's not how science is usually
done, in practice.
For a more realistic picture of the incredible cooperation necessary for science to proceed in a
dangerous place, check out the book Water, Ice, and Stone, which follows a team of researchers
trying to figure out the chemical flows into and out of the frozen lakes of the Antarctic Dry
Valleys. For a less realistic and more paranoid (but still team-based) conception, try John
Carpenter's The Thing, also set in Antarctica.
Of course, there are also competitive interactions in science. Papers have authors, and the person
whose name is at the top of the grant application gets the majority of the glory. Some have
suggested moving to a credits system like the movies use, which would document who
performed each experiment, made each analytical decision, wrote each tortured paragraph, and
even who donated computer time. That kind of system would certainly be more fair. It might
also improve the reproducibility of experimental results. (Although here is a paper claiming that
the unfairness actually increases the overall production of the community.)
Thankfully, science education is also moving away from the "Great Man" mythology and
emphasizing that science is performed by teams of people. SF and even superhero shows have
either caught up with this trend, or led it--I'm not sure which. All I know for certain is that when
I was a kid in the 1970s, most of the shows I watched were about traveling loners like David
Banner or Kwai Chang Caine, or hermits like Grizzly Adams, who played off against a never-ending series of character actor guest stars. Not to mention the detectives.
Then in the 80s there was an explosion of huge ensemble casts like Hill Street Blues. Now even
Green Arrow has a posse, growing each season. I wonder how much of this is due to the simple
recognition that recycling characters from one episode to the next builds audience loyalty, and
how much is due to exhaustion? Coming up with new names every week is hard.
In any case, it's somewhat unusual these days for NOVA to devote an entire episode to the work
of a single scientist, especially when that scientist is still alive. Leonardo da Vinci or Einstein,
sure, but Robert M. Hazen? Who's that? Well, if you watch the show, you'll see that he (and his
collaborators) proposed that the big mystery of how life started on planet Earth is missing some
Most SF writers have undoubtedly seen some version of the Miller & Urey "lightning in a
bottle" experiment, where they used a spark generator to create simple organic molecules like
amino acids out of the gases that were floating around in the atmosphere of the early
Earth--hydrogen, methane, that sort of thing. They ran many versions of that experiment,
tinkering with the gas mixes, but according to MSU artist-in-residence Adam Brown, they never
ran it for longer than a week. Brown ran a version
for much longer, but he still hasn't created the kinds of long threadlike polymers that can store
information or fold up into molecular robots and start catalyzing chemical reactions. Maybe it
takes a billion years for the exceptionally complex stuff to build up, as many people have
Or perhaps the problem is that solids and liquids are not enough. Perhaps there need to be solid
surfaces where some of those exotic reactions products can collect, surfaces more complicated
and interesting than the inside of a glass ball, surfaces that could stabilize the products of those
reactions and possibly catalyze new ones (remember last year's column on the importance of
three-dimensional shape in biochemistry?). Hazen's group suspected that the crystal structures of
minerals would be important, especially the thin, porous layers of clays. One of the main
structural features of Earth life is how carefully it controls surface area, the boundary between
Self and Other, as well as the ratio of surface area to volume. The NOVA episode shows some
neat computer simulations of that work.
What I'm more excited about today is another piece of the Hazen group's work, which I want to
make clear I have totally been into since, like, 2010, just to distinguish myself from the NOVA
groupies. This webpage chronicles the concept of mineral evolution. Minerals are like the
species of geology. They have specific crystal structures that can form only under the right
conditions of temperature, pressure, and chemical neighbors. Some of those conditions occur
pre-life, enough to generate maybe a dozen mineral species inside a nebula and hundreds on a
planetoid. Others of those conditions occur only much later when life is around, such as high
concentrations of oxygen in the atmosphere.
Hazen's group divided the history of the Earth into ten stages of mineral evolution. This graph
from the website charts the increase in mineral diversity over time. Notice that, unlike
biodiversity, mineral diversity only goes up; there have been no mass extinctions for minerals (or
That pretty curve could have many applications for a scientist, or an educator, or a science fiction
writer. It may be that life requires some threshold level of mineral diversity in order to get
started, as Star Trek kind of anticipated with its "class M" designation for planets. Arguments
about precisely where to place that threshold could underlie lots of stories. If there really are
specific minerals that can only form when life is around, then we finally have clear markers for at
least the past presence of life. The itey apellations of those crystals--azurite, malachite,
etceterite--would be great things to name-drop in a story (not to mention that they often sound
Also, SF authors love shorthands and stages like the Kardashev scale of technology. Problem
is, to avoid being a hypocrite, I'd have to propose the Hazen-Papineau-Bleeker-Downs-Ferry-McCoy-Sverjensky-Yang scale of mineral evolution, which is bloody great from a bridge-crew
diversity point of view but pretty much sucks otherwise. There aren't even any vowels to nucleate
an acronym crystallization process. Maybe if I used their first names . . .
Randall Hayes skipped the Hall of
Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City last week, and he's a
little bummed about it. But it was a long day even without the HoM, so maybe it was for the best.
He's looking for a good geologist to come by the Greensboro Science Cafe, if you know
Another approach, designed to work backwards from the published papers.
Neat little documentary about the making of the show.
Stated Clearly is a series of animations on genetics and evolution. Support their work on Patreon.
This is why the leaves of plants are usually flat, and why completely photosynthetic humans such
as you find in John Scalzi's Old Man's War series, or the Kim Stanley Robinson story below, are
probably not possible, because we can't pack enough chlorophyll into our roughly 2 square
meters of skin to make enough sugar to feed our roughly 100kg bodies, especially our energy-hog muscles and brains. Not that it wouldn't be helpful, hunger-wise.
Science needs more groupies. I'm just saying.
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