Going deep for far-out life

NAI astrobiology team mid-jump

The Borup Fiord Pass Glacier Astrobiology research team (L to R): Christopher Trivedi, Steve Grasby, Alexis Templeton, Graham Lau, and John Spear. In addition to advancing microbiology, this research team proved that humans can indeed hover. (Courtesy of John Spear).

I do some writing for the Colorado School of Mines, which is really one helluvan institution (while they do pay me to write for them, they didn’t pay me to say this).

Mines, as we in Colorado know it, is best known for… well, guess. Yes, and oil and gas expertise. But they do a ton of other stuff out on their Golden campus. One recent story I did there, published recently in Mines Magazine, had the additional benefit of harking back to one of the first science stories I ever wrote.

Marcel Marceau

Marcel Marceau

As somewhat of an aside, in about 1993, some friends of mine from Michigan, where I grew up and went to school, flew out to Vail to crash on the floor of a buddy ski-bumming and working as a lift-op. Somewhere up there, I assume in Eagle County, there was a roadside sign marking some sort of Mines infrastructure. We had never heard of the Colorado School of Mines, and one of us said, having honestly muffed the data capture, “What’s the Colorado School of Mimes?” This prompted us to laugh our asses off, U-turn, exit the vehicle and, doing our best Marcel Marceau imitations, pose with the sign. One of us covered the right-edge of the “N” in Mines for ambiguity’s sake. I would post this photo, but I believe it to be lost to history. Probably for the better.

Anyway, in 2005, John Spear was a postdoctoral researcher up at Norman Pace’s microbiology lab at CU, and I was writing a story for the Daily Camera on his discovery of hydrogen-eating bacteria in the hot pools of Yellowstone. While their insistence on a steady supply of scalding, brackish water leaves these bacteria something to be desired as pets, they represent a form of life that needs nothing more than water and a bit of rock to subsist. This has big implications  among people interested in the origins of life.

Well, a decade later nearly to the month, and now long removed from the Camera, I met with  John Spear, now a Mines professor with a thriving lab, once again. It was great, underscoring my generalization that, if you are empathetic toward the tiniest life forms, you do a pretty good job with multicellular sorts, too. He’s helping lead a very cool new NASA Astrobiology Institute project called “Rock Powered Life,” and Mines Magazine’s new editor, Laurie Schmidt, had called out of the blue to see if I’d be interested.

She beat me up a bit in the editorial process, nothing I didn’t deserve, and the lead came out like this:

In February 2005, a research team led by microbiologist John Spear set out to study geothermal ecosystems in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. What they found astonished them: microbial communities in the boiling waters were thriving not on sulfur, as was previously believed, but on hydrogen. The findings, which were published in a cover story of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2005), provided evidence of the first hydrogen-eating microbes ever identified in an Earthly ecosystem. It may seem a minuscule advance, but it was as if an alien visitor had confirmed the existence of giraffes and could now muse about the prevalence of other possible “herbivores.”

The rest is, as previously linked, here.

Should someone from Mimes Magazine call with a story idea, I’ll certainly pretend to listen. But I doubt that the simulated reporting process would be nearly as interesting.

How to earn your driver’s license in 3.5 hours


My driver’s license expires at the end of December, so I decided today was a good time to get in and get it renewed. I had to go in-person, the ten-year license I was issued in 2004 not allowing online renewal. So I watched my eight year old climb on the big yellow school bus and drove off to an Aurora branch of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles, where I stood in a U-shaped line of about 40 people just as the  place opened. I had heard the best approach to the DMV was to avoid Mondays and Fridays and be in line early. Check.

My wait was brief – less than 10 minutes. I handed my license to the young woman behind the counter. She was blonde, her station immediately next to a less-young, permed, more stereotypical DMV lady. The blonde keyed a couple of things and asked the permed lady a question, and they agreed: my license had been voided in 2006, when a new license had been issued. The new license had expired in 2011. Meaning I had no license at all.

I was like, what? I had no recollection at all at first; then only a vague sense of having misplaced a driver’s license at some point in the distant past, during the toddler-raising years. I had been driving illegally for somewhere between three and eight years.

I leaned forward and, elbows on the counter, put my palms to my forehead, trying to remember. Between my hands I said, “Are you sure it’s me? The 2006 one?”

“It’s your picture,” the stereotypical one said.

The tens of thousands of miles. The rented cars. The airport checkpoints. The drinks served and bottles bought. I had been living a lie.

The younger blonder one walked through the where-do-we-go-from-here. She seemed empathetic. I needed my learner’s permit first, which I could get after I had taken the written test. The learner’s permit would allow me to drive – if a licensed driver 21 years of age or older was in the passenger seat.  With the learner’s permit in hand, I could then take a road test, and if I passed that, I could come back in and get an actual driver’s license.

In moments like these, I’ve taken to repeating the mantra: “First-world problem.” Meaning my children do not have bloated bellies or Ebola; schistosomiasis is non-endemic to Colorado’s Front Range; I’m not being beheaded in Syria, those sorts of things.

I realize what probably happened: I misplaced the 10-year license, got the five-year license, found the 10-year license sometime after that and put that back in my wallet. I mumbled something to this effect. The girl nodded and said, “You can take the written test right now, over on terminal three. If you pass, you can get your permit right then.”

“How about the driver’s test?”

“We’re booked out about a month in advance,” she says. “But there’s a driving school right next door. They do driving tests for $45. You can try there, but you’ll need your permit first.”

I walked over to Terminal 3 with some trepidation, as I tend to prefer my study-to-test gaps to be somewhat less than 30 years.

The first question, a practice one, popped up on the screen – this is a digital test now, on a touch-screen terminal.

2 + 2 = ?

Multiple choice.

For the next 25 questions, I touched either A, B or C, then the Yes I’m Sure button. I was asked to properly identify “merge” and “yield” signs. Twice I was forced to guess twice. One was on the distance, at speeds over 40 mph, one should engage one’s turn signal on before changing lanes. The options were 100 feet, 200 feet, and 400 feet. I figured 30 yards was too short and 130 yards too far, so went with the just-right one, which worked out.

With the second one, I got bogged down in the semantics. On a slippery road, if one feels one starting to lose control in a car with ABS, should one a) pump brakes lightly, b) take one’s foot off the accelerator and steer in the direction of the slippage, or c) just hold down the brake pedal. Having driven cars with ABS since the turn of the millennium, my experience is that both not-accelerating and steering and holding down the brake (ABS being all about the pumping) were reasonable, depending on the situation. Ambiguity is not, of course, a defining, feature of things DMV. I guessed c); answer: b).

My learner's permit.

My learner’s permit

I did the eye test (the little light goes on left first, then right, then left, then right; don’t tell them I told you) got my permit and walked straight next door to the American Driving Academy. A sign said to smile, I was on camera, and to have a cookie and some coffee. After a bit, a guy who I assumed was Jim came out and asked if I had an appointment. I assumed he was Jim because Jim was the instructor on duty, according to the whiteboard that told me to smile, I was on camera. I said no.

He explained he was booked for the day, but if his 9 a.m. appointment didn’t show up, he could take me out. It was 8:57. The minutes passed slowly as I nibbled on my windmill cookie and sipped my heavily artificially creamed coffee. Jim said he would give the appointee until five after nine. At 9:03, three women of three generations, starting with probably mid-50s, walked in. The oldest was probably in her nineties, in a wheelchair. The younger one asked if her friend could take a driving test. I was relieved when the middle woman showed him a document. The lady in the wheelchair would  be a real menace out there. They had no appointment. I felt bad. Then, at 9:05, I felt good.

The Hyundai

The Hyundai

Jim gave me the key to the 2009 Hyundai with a sign on it like we were going out to deliver pizzas together. The car was seriously worn, with a big, thick brake pedal at Jim’s feet. Jim was a gentle man, and he had forewarned me to stop fully at stop signs. One of the touch-screen test questions reminded me to not palm the wheel around corners (hand-over-hand, or hand-slip, I had answered, correctly and in direct contrast with my long-practiced one-handed-palm-only approach). Three times I stopped more completely and earlier than I had stopped for uncontested stop signs since 1984, when I took my last road test. I hand-over-handed my turns, an incredibly foreign feeling that manifest in the car’s slight lurching. I left two hands on the wheel longer than I had since Ronald Reagan’s first term. I watched my speed closely.

But I realized: hey, I’m just driving, here. Probably done a million miles or something since the L.A. Olympics. Left-hand drives, right-hand drives, stick shifts, vans, moving vans, the whole bit. So I started to talking to Jim, who I learned lives in Mayfair, not far from me. I noted the gigantic campers in the driveways, wondering how big a rig they need to pull them. I thought: I should pull out my cell phone and thumb up a quick text message just to freak old Jim right out. I asked him if there were drivers he went on road tests with that just scared the hell out of him.

“Yes,” he said.



During the debrief, Jim said two of my stop-sign stops were right on the ragged edge and one was an outright fail. “I gave  you the benefit of the doubt,” he said. This despite my belief that I had stopped long enough for an acorn to take root. But otherwise, everything was great, he said. Given that I’ve been driving twice as long as most permit-holders have been alive, I took it as I would take someone complimenting my near-native English. I said, “Yeah, I usually roll my stops if it’s totally clear – better for the environment. Hypermiling and all.” Old Jim raised his eyebrows, but signed the Basic Operators Driving Skill Test Completion Statement anyway. It was 9:25 a.m.

I walked back next door to the DMV and took another number, long after early now. This one advertised an estimated wait time of an hour and thirteen minutes, which turned out to be more like two hours, enough to write most of this.

I was asked the same questions as with the permit, though there was no eye test (I would have passed the peripheral vision light one easy, having memorized it). I paid my $21 for the actual license, the $15 I had forked over for the learner’s permit having been one of the most expensive ever, calculated on an per-hour basis. I sat back down until the photo guy called me back up.

Legal again.

Legal again.

“Long time no see,” I said.

“No kidding,” he said. “Birthdate?”

“Twelve-thirty-sixty-eight,” I said.

“Still?” he said.

Another signature, another infrared fingerprint scan, another photo. He considered whatever was on his screen.

“It looks a lot like the last one,” he said, and he handed me back my voided license and temporary license and said to have a good day. I wished him the same, walked out, and drove home legally for the first time in years.