Mysteries Near and Far

The more time I spend talking to biologists, the more they remind me of detectives. I have two stories in tomorrow’s New York Times that make this connection particularly clear. In the first, E.O. Wilson attempts to solve the mystery of a plague of ants that devastated some of the earliest Spanish settlements in the New World. In the second, I look at another mystery–is there life on Saturn’s moon Titan. The space probe Huygens will be falling into its hazy atmosphere on Friday to see what lurks under its cloak. I inteviewed University of Florida chemist Steven Benner who will be trying to search for signs of life in Huygens’s data. But if Titan does have life, it may not be based on DNA or even need liquid water. So how do you look for something you’ve never seen before?

During my interview with Dr. Benner, he said something I found particularly apt about this sort of detective work–but which unfortunately had to be cut for space. “Those of us who do professional science in this area do get a degree of emotional balance. Most of the time science fails. So you meter your emotions.”