How rocks and aliens become a career | Interview with Dr. Robert Hazen

We met with Dr. Robert Hazen to discuss the possibility of life beyond earth, his career as a mineralogist, and much more. Enjoy!

How rocks and aliens become a career | Interview with Dr. Robert Hazen
Minerals are the most robust, permanent things, that give us clues about the ancient past.” – Dr. Robert Hazen

Dr. Robert Hazen talks with student Karina Macosko about how his hobby of collecting rocks has developed into his career as a mineralogist. Dr. Hazen works as an astrobiologist, a career that allows him to answer questions about the origin of life and life beyond earth. As a mineralogist, he looks at ways in which the fundamental makeup of a planet can lead to generating life. Because of the robust nature of minerals, scientists like Dr. Hazen are able to observe the history of planets and comets and potentially gain clues to the existence of aliens. Learn more about why Dr. Hazen is a strong advocate for the existence of extraterrestrial life!

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Want to hear more from Dr. Hazen? Check out Dr. Jed Macosko’s interview with Dr. Robert Hazen here.

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Interview with Mineralogist, Dr. Robert Hazen

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:13.7Collector and Astrobiologist

Karina Macosko: Hi, I’m Karina Macosko, from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Dr. Hazen, and I just wanna know, how did you get into your field as an environmental scientist? And how did you start studying, not only environmental science, but rocks specifically?

Robert Hazen: So Karina, that’s a very good question. When I was very young, I liked to collect things. I collected bottle caps, of all things. I collected stamps and coins, I liked to study and learn from the things I was collecting, and I got into picking up rocks and fossils of different kinds of natural objects and realized there was so much to learn about them, they’re just fascinating objects. So when I was very young, I lived near Cleveland, Ohio, which is a very fossil-rich area. But my father moved around a lot, he worked for a company that moved him to the New York City area, and there are just not a lot of fossils around New York City, so I was fortunate enough to have teachers that turned me towards minerals. And I became a mineralogist. Ever since I was 19-years-old, I collected minerals and it was amazing to me. You could actually make a living at this. It’s just something I love doing, and I’ve been able to ever since make a living, and study minerals. So that’s how I got to where I am today, and I’m still loving it. Sometimes my wife and I, we’ve been married for the 50 years. But sometimes you say, when we grow up, what do you think we should do? And I say, "No, let’s not grow up quite yet. [chuckle] That’s just too much fun.

Karina: Wow! Well, that is just fascinating. Well, I interview a lot of people on here about how they got into their field, and very few of them can say that they had such clear direction about what they wanted to go into. And you are also an astrobiologist. Are you not?

Robert: That’s right, Astrobiology is a field that NASA and space exploration has led us to think about other worlds, about planets and moons, and then naturally, one of the biggest questions is, "Is there life elsewhere in the cosmos?" And so, when you’re a mineralogist... Minerals are the most robust, permanent things, that give us clues about the ancient past, both of Earth, and we’re finding minerals on Mars, we find minerals on the Moon, and from meteorites, we see other worlds. And so we have this incredible opportunity, studying minerals, to learn how these other worlds might have evolved, and is life part of that evolution? We know it’s part of Earth’s evolution. Is life just everywhere? And so, Astrobiology explores these really big questions, these exciting questions about the planets, and life, and the cosmos, though. So, I’ve really embraced that, because mineralogy has a big role to play in addressing those questions.

0:03:03.0What’s out there

Karina: Wow! Yeah, and that is so interesting. I think we all like to have our own little theories about aliens, and life outside of Earth, but I would love to hear your perspective as somebody, who actually studies this, and isn’t just making up their own theories. So what do you think is out there?

Robert: Well, Karina, you’re absolutely right that everybody who studies origin of life, comes to it from a different perspective, because you don’t get your PhD in origin of life, there’s no question. You got a PhD in physics, or chemistry, or biology, maybe mineralogy. And so each person who goes into this origin of life field, ends up seeing that question of how life arose, and is there life on other worlds? Seeing that question from their own idiosyncratic perspective.

So I look at life, and the origins, and I think, "Oh, I’m a mineralogist, maybe minerals played a role." And, it turns out when you start looking at the chemistry, when you start thinking about how planets work, and how the chemistry of life might have begun, it seems like minerals have to play various roles, and so I have my own thing to contribute to this field, but other people as well. But the other deeper philosophical question is, "Are we alone in the cosmos?" And of course, we might be, we might be the only living planet, or one of very, very few, in which case, life is so improbable, given the billions of billions of billions of planets that are out there.

…when you have an Earth-like planet, a warm, wet, sunlit world, that there's a high probability that life will arise, especially given the hundreds of millions of years you have to work with, on a planetary scale.” – Dr. Robert Hazen

That studying at the laboratory is really fruitless. You’re never gonna reproduce that incredibly chance event. On the other hand, if you actually wanna study the origin of life, you’re sort of staking a philosophical stand, that life is a cosmic imperative. That when you have an Earth-like planet, a warm, wet, sunlit world, that there’s a high probability that life will arise, especially given the hundreds of millions of years you have to work with, on a planetary scale. And so that’s my philosophical background. And I wouldn’t have spent a lot of my career thinking about the origin of life, if I thought it was an impossibly rare event. So I guess that I can’t prove it, and we only know of one life, living world so far, but I think where there’s one, there’s vast, countless numbers.

Karina: Oh, that is so interesting. And you just recently wrote a book, didn’t you? About the kind of the whole origin of the Earth? Did it specifically focus on the Earth, or did you also kind of look out to things beyond the Earth?

Robert: If you think about Earth in the context of the cosmos, you have to think, "Well, we have a planet here, we know it’s alive, it’s a really special place, but it’s really hard to think that we’re the only one. That we’re somehow unique. And in some details, I’m sure Earth is unique. In fact, every world is unique in some ways, but there’re also gonna be patterns. There’re gonna be repeating circumstances throughout the cosmos. We have, what? I think a trillion or more galaxies, and each one has hundreds of billions of stars, and most of those stars have planets, and when you start thinking about those astronomical, literally astronomical numbers, that’s so surprising that you think there’d be lots of Earth-like worlds, that may have replayed the same kind of experiment in the past.

Karina: Oh, that is so interesting. And how do you think your perspective as a mineralogist, which a lot of people might not think of as studying aliens, how do you think that’s different from like coming in from a physics perspective, or from a chemistry perspective?

Robert: So, a mineralogist is dealing with the raw materials that a planet has to offer. When you come to a world like Earth, you have gases, the Atmosphere, you have liquids, the Ocean, and you have rocks and minerals. And those are your building blocks. And in terms of chemical diversity, in terms of the kinds of little Eco-niches, or micro-environments that you might have, minerals provide most of the different kinds of environments. So if you need to do unique kinds of chemistry, having those mineral surfaces, mineral surface is in contact with water, in contact with air, in contact with other minerals. Those are the kinds of places where interesting chemistry gets done.

0:07:35.3Sign off

Karina: Oh, that is so interesting. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, it was just so cool hearing your background, and then, kind of what you study. Life beyond the Earth, is open to a lot of questions, but I’m glad you could answer some of mine today. So, thank you so much, for taking the time to talk with me.

Robert: Thank you, Karina.