2020-21: Habitability -- Cosmological, Planetary & Ethical Perspectives

Each academic year the COE gathers a small group of Wesleyan faculty members, a scholar of prominence from outside Wesleyan, and a small group of undergraduate students into a year-long academic think tank on a critical environmental issue. The aim of the think tank is not only to generate a deeper understanding of the thematic issue, but also to produce scholarly works that will influence national/international thinking and action on the issue.  This year's Think Tank theme, Habitability: Cosmological, Planetary & Ethical Perspectives, will be the subject of our 2021 Where on Earth Are We Going? symposium to be held October 17 from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. via Zoom, as part of this year's Homecoming Family Weekend. The seminar, Habitability and Life on Venus, will be conducted by Think Tank fellows Martha Gilmore, Wesleyan's George I. Seney Professor of Geology, and David Grinspoon, the Menakka and Essel Bailey '66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment, who were recently quoted in articles in National Geographic (Possible Sign of Life on Venus Stirs Up Heated Debate) and The Atlantic (Something Weird is Happening on Venus) about the recent discovery of traces of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere.

Our planet is currently the single piece of evidence that the universe is inhabited. The last century of exploration has allowed us to ask if we are also the only example of a habitable world, or if habitable worlds are common throughout the solar system and galaxy. This iteration of the COE Think Tank will discuss the definition of habitability from several scientific and humanitarian perspectives: biological, environmental, geological, historical, and ethical. We will ask how these disciplines allow us to recognize a habitable planet, understand our collective investments in this search, and determine how we ought to interact with extra-planetary ecosystems. New measurements of the evolution of planets from spacecraft allows us to consider the time frame of habitability: is habitability transient? Is habitability equivalent to life? We recognize that we are a species that can create habitable environments within almost any environment on Earth. In this case, we redefine habitability in terms of human needs, most often the needs of the colonizer. As we turn our attention to space, we consider more specifically what is required to create a habitable environment on, say, the Moon or Mars and ask: who defines these environments? Who has access? Who has authority? Who gives consent? Which indigenous formations on these bodies are we entitled to use as “resources”? Three billion years from now, will a human colony on the Moon define a habitable universe in the absence of a life-sustaining Earth? Will Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos succeed in terraforming Mars in the next few decades? How do disaster narratives about climate change, nuclear war, and bioterrorism help feed fantasies of escaping the Earth, and who might determine the ethical boundaries of such extra-terrestrial inhabitation?

More about this year's Think Tank fellows below:

Antonio Machado-Allison is a Research Fellow at the College of the Environment. He was the Essel and Menakka Bailey '66 Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the College of the Environment for the 2018-2019 academic year. Dr. Machado is an Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Sciences, Institute of Tropical Zoology and Ecology, of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Caracas, Venezuela. Machado received his PhD from George Washington University in Washington, DC, doing his research on piranhas and their allies at the US National Museum, Smithsonian Institution. For his extensive and far-reaching scholarship, his service to scientific and humanitarian programs, Machado was elected to the Venezuelan Academy of Physics, Mathematics and Natural Sciences; he was a former Academic Secretary of the Academy and Publications Director/editor. He has authored over 100 peer/reviewed publications on biosystematics, life history, and the ecology of fish. Most recently, he published several book chapters on biodiversity and aquatic environment conservation.

  • Think Tank project - Habitability: How Fish Live in Acidic Environments. What have we learned from the classic literature?

Martha Gilmore is a planetary geologist who studies the surface morphology and composition of Venus, Mars and Earth.  Using surface mapping and orbital VNIR spectroscopy, Dr. Gilmore looks at some of the oldest rocks on Venus and Mars in order to evaluate rock composition and constrain the history of water on these two planets. These investigations are supported by laboratory studies of minerals formed and/or weathered under Venus and Mars conditions. Dr. Gilmore also uses spectroscopy to evaluate the extent and health of plant species local to Connecticut. Click here for more about Marty.

  • Think Tank project - Planetary Habitability Through Time. Our universe is habitable. There are 100s of billions of galaxies just like our own Milky Way and in each galaxy are 100s of billions of stars, and over the last 20 years we have learned that all stars have planets. And of all of these planets in our universe, the single datum that we have that the universe is habitable is us.

    So that begs the question: Where is everyone else? Where do we look? We know that life must exist on planets. Each planet we observe offers a new laboratory in which to test our hypothesis about the factors that beget life. My field, planetary geology, offers a set of tools to define habitable environments in a particular way and identify these environments elsewhere.

    Defining habitability is a large question that I look forward to discussing in the Think Tank. At this point, I must rely on my colleagues in Biology, Astrobiology and Cosmochemistry and consider the current consensus for the definition of life and the definition of a habitable environment (e.g., NRC, 2005; 2007; NASEM, 2019). At the broadest terms, we look for planets that can maintain liquid water long enough for life to evolve. Other requirements, such as nutrients and shelter, seem to be ubiquitous and/or common. We also hold fast to the current knowledge that life evolved on Earth within 800 million years of its formation (Mojzsis et al., 1996). We may then turn to our closest planetary neighbors to search for extinct extant life.

    I am a morphologist and spectroscopist with expertise in the geological history of Venus and Mars. I have been working on this as a scientist and working on the scientific rationale for planetary exploration. The question I have been toying with stems from a realization I had that 4 billion years ago the inner solar system had three planets with oceans: Venus, Earth and Mars. And we know on one of them life evolved.

    My theme boils down to exploring how habitability changes with time. More specific questions include: What is the lifetime of habitability? How does habitability evolve? Are all planets similarly habitable? Does habitability = life? How can we recognize the signature of habitability in this solar system and in planets around other solar systems?

David Grinspoon is the Menakka and Essel Bailey '66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment and a senior scientist studying surface-atmospheric interactions on terrestrial planets, atmospheric evolution and habitability, and planetary-scale human influences on the Earth system. He is the former inaugural Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology for 2012-2013. More about David, here. 


  • Think Tank project - "One World” Views of Life, Space Humanity and the Future. “The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars”– Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower. As a 2020-21 Think Tank fellow, I will explore various aspects of the concept of habitability, examine some of the assumptions embedded in our discussions of the nature of life, and explore how our changing views of our own planet, of ourselves, and of the current and future roles of humanity on Earth have changed our views of habitability of environments elsewhere.

Helen Poulos is a plant ecologist who examines the influences of natural and anthropogenic disturbances on local-, landscape-, and regional-scale plant distribution patterns. Her work explores the mechanisms underscoring such patterns through the lenses of plant ecophysiology, biogeochemistry, and community ecology. The overarching goal of Professor Poulos's research is to understand spatiotemporal patterns of plant diversity and community organization as well as examining the relationships between humans and ecosystem function. She has worked in diverse ecosystems including forests, deserts, rivers, and estuaries across North America and has field expertise in fire ecology, rapid assessments, restoration ecology, coastal marine carbon sequestration, and aquatic community dynamics. Dr. Poulos has a master's degrees in geography from Penn State and a PhD from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She has authored over 30 peer-reviewed publications and popular articles on a range of environmental topics.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein is a professor of Religion at Wesleyan University; core faculty in the Science and Society Program; and affiliated faculty in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She holds a B.A. in Religion and English from Williams College, an M.Phil. in Philosophical Theology from Cambridge University, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from Columbia University. Her areas of research include continental philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, science and religion, and the history and philosophy of physics, ecology, and cosmology. She is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (2009) Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (2014), and Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (2018). She is also co-editor with Catherine Keller of Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms (2017). Click here for more about MJ.

  • Think Tank project -  Colonizing Space: Exploration, Extraction and Inhabitation. In 2015, the Obama administration signed into law a bipartisan bill that grants ownership of extraterrestrial "resources" to the nation or corporation that extracts them. Having lobbied strenuously for the legislation, American aeronautic corporations like "Planetary Resources" and "Moon Express" celebrated its passing, knowing they now had the right to sell whatever they manage to mine from celestial bodies. As Moon Express co-founder and Bob Richards explained upon hearing the news, speculators would be far likelier to invest in the space market now that they were assured ownership of extraterrestrial water and minerals. "I think this will be a big deal from a historical perspective," Richards predicted, going on to liken the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) to the 1862 Homestead Act. Both granted would-be explorers the right to purportedly uninhabited terrain, opening the terrae incognitae of the American West and the moon, or Mars, or Venus, to unregulated "development."

    Of course the Homestead Act granted such rights to white, European-descended settlers while taking them summarily from the indigenous nations that had cared for the land for millennia. The result has been the decimation of indigenous populations and the simultaneous ravaging of the continent for its lumber, oil, gas, and gold. As Black Libertarian theologian James Cone has argued, the logic of environmental degradation is the logic of white supremacy: both reduce the rest of the planet--animal, mineral, vegetable, and on-European--to "resources" for the growth, comfort, and expansion of white humanity. If it is indeed the case that the CSLCA is operating in the legislative space of the Homestead Act, then the current revitalization of the space race can be seen not only as an unprecedented opportunity for science but also as a disturbing new frontier for capitalist expansion and a troubling next chapter in the colonial enterprise that stretches from the Age of Exploration to Manifest Destiny. 

Dr. Victoria Smolkin is associate professor of history and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University. A scholar of Communism, the Cold War, and Russia and the former Soviet Union, her work focuses on the intersections of politics with religion and ideology, including atheism, secularism, and nationalism. Smolkin’s recent book, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton University Press, 2018; in paperback 2019), explores the meaning of atheism for religion, ideology, and politics in the USSR, and and was a finalist for the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences. A Russian translation is forthcoming from the Russian publishing house New Literary Observer in Fall 2020. She has also appeared in a number of media outlets, including the BBC (“Belief and Unbelief in Russia”), National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, the New Books Network, the Immanent Frame Blog, The Conversation, and the Washington Post. Her research has been supported by Princeton University’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies; Social Science Research Council; Sherman Emerging Scholar Lectureship; Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship in Religion and Ethics; Fulbright-Hays Fellowship; Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., among others. She is currently at work on two projects: “The Crusade Against Godlessness: Religion, Communism, and the Cold War Order” and “The Wall of Memory: Life, Death, and the Impossibility of History.” More about Victoria, here.

  • Think Tank project -  Imagining Life and Death in the Cosmos: The Soviet Experiment. My project will trace how different actors in Russia and the USSR imagined the relationship between life and death on Earth and in space, and how they understood space travel as transforming human relationships and worlds. The project will historicize the political, philosophical, spiritual, and aesthetic programs that motivated human space travel and world-building projects. It will contribute to the broader conversation about “Habitability” by de-centering the American perspective and bringing in the Russian and Soviet case, which cast itself as both distinct from, and in conversation with, other parts of the world.