On a clear evening the main crater of the volcano is quiet, exuding just a few puffs of steam. Abutting it is another crater, now extinct. Beyond, a dreamscape of sea ice and ocean stretches to the mountains and dry valleys of the Antarctic mainland.
The scene: a tent on Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island, Antarctica. The tent is a four-cornered tepee modeled after those that Captain Robert Falcon Scott brought with him on his Antarctic expeditions more than a century ago. It is high enough at the center for someone five feet five inches tall to stand erect and has two vents at the peak that serve as chimneys. This particular tent is occupied by two people; both are in sleeping bags. Between the sleeping bags are a large box, a Primus stove, a couple of thermoses, and two pairs of heavy boots. It is too cold to read; even with gloves on, it is too cold to hold a book. Thus the inmates—of whom I am one—are passing the time by talking.
“What are your favorite microbes?” I say, dusting ice off my sleeping bag.
“It’s got to be those funky archaea,” says my companion, Craig Herbold, a large, thirty-something American with a taste for Japanese electronic music and an interest in astrobiology, the study of what life elsewhere in the universe might be like. He’s a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and the junior member of a team of three who have come here to look for life in the volcano’s hot soils. That’s right. He’s come to one of the coldest places on Earth to look for beings that thrive in heat.