So, in the ideal case, what I'd like to do is find life on other planets. Which to me sounds a lot cooler than Netflix-and-chilling in my grave on a giant oil salary, right?

Being an astronaut would be my first choice, but it's not like astronaut or nothing. There are a lot of things — I'm not doing it to be an astronaut, but that would be the coolest thing to do if I could.

You might have heard that NASA is planning on sending a human to Mars in the 2030s. Within our lifetimes, it's not inconceivable that casual travel to Mars, for the very wealthy, could very well happen.

I think the big question is, why would you go?

And for people for whom there's no inherent scientific interest, for Mars or other planets — I don't really think there would be any appeal whatsoever.

I think I'd want to go because you probably end up being one of the most cited geologists of all time if you actually made it there and were able to be a scientist there.

But otherwise, I like to be able to feel the breeze on my face. I like being able to walk outside in my t-shirt and shorts. I like being able to open up the window to the great outdoors. And I don't think people have any idea  how much they appreciate those everyday things — those everyday things pretty much make up the bulk of our experiences.

 

Why do you think it's important to look outside ourselves?

 

There are certain scientific endeavors that are inherently compelling, and most geological endeavors are this way.

The one thing that's valuable in all aspects of geological sciences is the intuition for deep time. Being able to conceive of everything that you experience in your daily life as transient — being able to think about not just millions or tens of millions of years, but billions of years. It's powerful.

It's very humbling and it fills us with a sense of awe. Most work, and all work in geology, takes that for granted. It has to. That is fundamental and the first step to doing any modern, good geological work. Much work that I see done in geology even at premier institutions is not interesting beyond that you're talking about a long, long, long time ago.

What people find interesting, what you read, what you see in the popular science press, is stuff that, in one way or another, ties back to humans. Most of geology has nothing to do with humans. But the stuff that really gets the NSF money and gets popular books published is about the origin of life.

You can use the rock record — isotopic studies of the rock record — to figure out, when did life arise? How did it arise? 

Looking for life on other planets is valuable because it's, in a way, autobiographical questions. You're trying to figure out where you came from, where you're going, as an individual, as a member of a species.

And at a certain point, where does it all come from?

The attribution should be easy. There's a really, really famous quote — Heisenberg? Schroedinger? one of these German physicists guys — that's like, you take your first gulp of science from the Goblet of Science, and you automatically turn an atheist. But if you take a deep enough draft that you get to the very bottom, and God is waiting for you.

The rigorous pursuit of scientific knowledge can at the outset inhibit your ability to experience awe. But the most profound, best sort of science pursued over a lifetime can create the sort of awe that you can only access through art, religion, things like that.

I don't know, because I haven't been there yet. But that's, that's what I'm hoping for. That's what I hope is waiting for me at the end of the tunnel.

 

Do you believe in God right now?

 

Um, yeah, yeah sure. Why not. Not, yeah, I mean.

Not in a... not even in a, uh... hold on, I'm trying to come up with an answer. Not like in any way, that I can, that I can verbalize, as you can tell. It's not like, you know. Hmm. This is why people speak in tongues, because they don't have the words for it.

But yeah, yeah sure. Let's go with yeah.

I'd say it's a response to my inability to comprehend the immensity, the massiveness, of existence. You take your weakest binoculars out on a clear night, you point it up at the stars, and you're like, holy fuck, there are way more stars when I look through these binoculars than I've ever seen before.

Like, wow, the universe is big. And whether God is classical mechanics, or something that has some sort of anthropomorphic form that's standing right outside of everything — I'm not sure. I'm not gonna say that it doesn't matter, but it's not something that I'm prepared to give an answer to.