Science Book a Day Interviews David Toomey


Special thanks to David Toomey for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own

David Toomey is an associate professor of English and director of the Professional Writing and Technical Communication Program at the University of Massachusetts−Amherst. He lives in Amherst.

#1 – What was it that inspired you to write this book?
I had read of a report commissioned by the National Research Council on the possibilities for life on Earth and elsewhere in the universe that might be utterly unlike any life we know.  I knew that ideas of “weird life” were common in science fiction, but I did not know that biologists were thinking seriously about the possibilities.  To learn that they were was exciting, and seemed worth a book. The more I read and researched, the more convinced I became.

#2 – There are many types of unusual life that is discussed in your book. What is your favourite of these life forms? Did you get to see many of these extremophiles in real life?
I honestly don’t have a favorite extremophile.  They are all amazing in their way.  I am, though, most amazed by spores.  They are not extremophiles per se, but dormant stages of many organisms that can survive in extreme conditions and with no water–in some cases for millions of years.

In the course of researching the book I saw some heat-loving extremophiles in labs, through a microscope.  Someday I’d like to visit a mid-ocean ridge in a research submarine, but that didn’t happen in the course of writing this book.  Time in a research submarine is expensive, and anyway, I’d rather leave it to the scientists, who would gain more by the experience.

#3 – In writing about the possibilities of life on other worlds, how did you manage to find that balance between scientific research and speculation?
I did not want to write the glib, “gee-whiz” sort of book that treats these hypotheses as having equal weight. So to distinguish among them I did more or less what a good scientist would do: I used the criterion of empiricism or testability.  Some hypotheses–like the idea that microbes in California’s Mono Lake use arsenic in their DNA–are testable now, and in fact have been tested.   (The 2010 paper that drew this conclusion has been discredited, which is to say, the test failed.)  Some hypotheses that are not testable now–like the hypothesis of an ecosystem in Saturn’s moon Titan–may be testable sometime in the future, when say, scientists employ a sophisticated unmanned probe to study Titan’s atmosphere in some detail and over an extended length of time.  Some hypotheses, like ideas for organisms in the vicinity of black holes or organisms surviving into the universe’s far future when most stars will be extinguished–may never be testable.  In the book I tried to be clear about which is which, and I hope I’ve succeeded.

#4 – Your background is in English and Professional Writing, but you have written a number of Popular Science books. What is it that draws you to write about science?
Science is knowledge about the universe we live in.  I might turn the question around and ask “how can anyone not be interested in that”?

#5 – Are you working on another book project that you can tell us about?
I am entertaining a number of ideas.  One is the history of thinking about eternity.  Another is a survey of the big unanswered questions in science.  Both are in very early stages, and I’m not sure either will get much beyond those stages.  But they are fun to think about.

[Image Credit: Photo by Leslie Haynsworth – %5D

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