100 Colorado Creatives: Dr. David Grinspoon, Denver Museum of Nature and Science

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Colorado Creatives #95: Dr. David Grinspoon

Science? Art? Bona fide space-nerd superstar Dr. David Grinspoon likes it both ways. By day an author and the mild-mannered curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Grinspoon is also a musician and confirmed Dead Head, travels the country lecturing on such topics as "Is There Art on Other Planets?" and, in his spare time, mentors artist Denver painter Monica Aiello, whose artistic oeuvre features beautiful renditions of planetary phenomena. He works with NASA on space exploration projects. And mainly, he has a unique way of sharing the gorgeous awesomeness of the universe with the rest of us, the everyday hoi polloi of planet Earth.

Grinspoon's first love in science lay beneath the ocean, rather than up in the heavens. But that eventually changed. "I was interested in science from an early age," he says. "The first time I remember saying what I wanted to be was in the fifth grade, but at that time, I wanted to be an oceanographer. When I first went to college, I went into physics and my goal was to help perfect nuclear fusion, so I could solve the energy crisis and global warming. I probably would have done it, too, if I'd stuck to it. But in my freshman year, I was seduced by the siren song of the planets. I was able to study with two influential professors who were involved in early planetary exploration as an undergrad. When I saw those new pictures coming in from the Viking landers, it was exciting and new and dynamic, and suddenly, exploratory physics felt old to me. I forgot all about saving the world. "There were two brand new missions that I got to work on," he continues. "One of the two professors I worked with was involved in the Viking mission, which was the first-ever Mars lander. To look at those first photos, it was as if you were on another world, seeing this windblown, dusty vista of another planet. I saw it as a chance to contribute to a new understanding of other world, and that the opportunity was there to, as they say, boldly go... The other professor was involved with the Pioneer Venus Project -- the first American Venus orbiter." Venus, he notes, remains his "pet planet." He was hooked, then, by a heady brew of advancing into the unknown and long-term camaraderies with his colleagues: "There's something cool about being involved in new missions to other planets. They are frustrating, nerve-wracking things because they take so many years to plan, and they don't always work. It's a a risky business. You could almost compare it to a seagoing, sailing ship exploration on earth, except that it can take a decade to plan and launch a mission and years before you'll get any information back. Because of that, there's a sense of community among all the people involved: You watch people grow older, life changes, you lose some people who were there when the mission started and gain others along the way. You have a sense of embarking on a journey with these other people."

And there are, after all, few truly pioneering professions left where a participant is bound to see something no human has ever seen before. "It's like experiencing the feeling you might get when the spacecraft is approaching a planet, and you're seeing all the latest images come down on the screen," he concludes. "And the images are getting larger and more clear, and it's almost like you're there, looking out of the little porthole, seeing it unfold." That's nirvana, the Grinspoon way.

Following is our 100 Colorado Creatives Q&A with Dr. Grinspoon. Westword: If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be, and why?

David Grinspoon: I'd like to jump a couple hundred years into the future and work with the scientists who are getting back the first information from our probes to planets orbiting nearby stars. Now we know they are there but we can't reach them. I want explore strange new worlds and, during my lifetime, have to be satisfied with the planets of our own solar system because we're stuck here for now.

Also I'd love to jam with Jerry Garcia in the '70s before he got way into opiates.

WW: Who in the world is interesting to you right now, and why?

DG: I'm interested in the modern techno-religious belief in the "singularity" that will supposedly occur soon when machines become sentient and completely change the meaning of, and possibly end, human existence.  I'm agnostic about whether or not these predictions are correct or not.  It hinges on interesting questions about the nature of human consciousness  and whether it can be duplicated or surpassed by machines with a large number of fast neural connections.  People have strong and confident opinions on this but nobody knows.  I am interested in scientifically acceptable systems of faith. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is another area where these lines, between science and spiritual beliefs, are blurred.

There is a fascinating debate going on right now about "active SETI" or METI (messages to ETI) where we are not just listening for signals but broadcasting. Some people think this it is dangerous for us to shout out into the darkness because some aliens might hear our signals and decide to harm or destroy us. Others think we have a moral responsibility to sing out into the cosmos if we are going to be listening. You can reduce this debate down to assumptions or inferences about the universals of evolution of higher intelligence, "civilization" and morality. That's cool. WW: What's one scientific trend you want to see die this year?

DG: I'm tired of reading about how once we just discover this one more elusive sub-subatomic particle we will have finally discovered the secret to everything.  What I expect is that when we find it we will then learn that there are 15 more elusive particles that we just need to discover to understand the secret to everything.

Also, many scientists are abusing the media these days and doing "Science by press release" where they go for a big headline about work that would be exciting if verified, but that has not yet run the rapids of peer review.  This causes a lot of public misunderstanding and leaves big messes for the rest of us to clean up.

There, that is two trends.

WW: What's your day job?

DG: My day job and my night job are one and the same.  I suppose my "day job" is those bureaucratic and clerical parts of my work life that are tedious but unavoidable.

WW: A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?

DG: I'd quit  most of my institutional affiliations, pay somebody to do stuff I find tedious and otherwise continue what I'm doing -- planetary research, writing, speaking, communicating, trying to combine music and art and science in different ways. OK, well, I'd probably also buy a few more guitars, take some fun trips with my friends and get a beach house with hot springs and a private rocket-car.

WW: What's the one thing Denver (or Colorado) could do to help the arts and sciences?

DG: Stop asking me all these questions and let me get back to work.   No, seriously, we should start taxing churches and have tax-exempt places for worship and study of nature and art. Charge ten bucks for Sunday services and make the Botanic Gardens free.

WW: So, IS there art on other planets?

DG: Yes.

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