Greg Brennecka is a cosmochemist with a sense of humor and a flair for making complex topics both understandable and entertaining. We asked him to share a little scientific advice for all those who feel inspired to study the stars after reading Impact.
No doubt you get this a lot, but what exactly is a cosmochemist?
Ha, well, most people don’t even ask—probably because they just figure it’s something completely made up. I guess I would properly define cosmochemistry as the study of extraterrestrial materials with the goal of understanding the origin and evolution of our solar system and our cosmic neighborhood. But basically, it’s just looking at stuff not from Earth to learn cool things.
The subtitle of your book is quite memorable: How Rocks From Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong. What was your history with Donkey Kong before writing Impact?
To be honest, I am more of a Ms. Pac-Man fan, but I also enjoyed the original Donkey Kong arcade game quite a bit growing up. I also usually choose a Donkey Kong character when racing in Mario Kart because I love throwing bananas all around the course. Please don’t hate me for that.
Your book brims with wit and humor. Have you ever considered stand-up cosmochemist comedy?
If there is a job more made up than “cosmochemist,” it is “stand-up cosmochemist comedian”!
Many of the concepts in Impact are highly technical and complex, yet you’ve found a way to make them accessible to readers. What’s your secret?
My secret is that I am not that great at discussing things in a technical way! I think it helps that a lot of the questions we ask in geology and meteoritics are straightforward questions, such as “When did this happen?” or “What happened that could make it look like this?” There may be some technical aspects to how we get at the answers, but the questions and goals themselves are usually very relatable to readers of all backgrounds, and I think that makes my job as a writer a lot easier.
Asteroids have been in the news of late, with NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. What excites you most about it?
One thing to keep in mind with DART: It’s conceivable that we will need to adjust the path of an asteroid to keep it from hitting Earth someday, so making sure we know how to do that is a pretty sound preparation. And I know that “sound preparation” isn’t usually associated with excitement, but I am always very excited by humanity striving to do cool and difficult things, advancing our capabilities.
What’s the most common question about asteroids that you get?
For asteroids specifically, probably whether Earth is going to be hit by one—which probably isn’t a surprise given the popular Hollywood movies on the subject. When it comes to meteorites—the small chunks of asteroids that land on Earth—I sometimes get asked about being hit by one, but also often about what they are worth if you find one. I guess that tells us pretty clearly what motivates people: fear and money.
“Basically, it’s just looking at stuff not from Earth to learn cool things.”
If you could be magically transported to another planet so you could get a better look, which would you choose?
Oooh, that is tough. I would probably be most interested in a planet’s potential ability to harbor life, so it would be hard to argue with Mars. Do moons count? Because if so, probably one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, like Europa or Enceladus. There are some potentially habitable exoplanets that are being discovered almost daily now, as well, so some of those would be incredible to check out up close.
If you could go back in time on Earth, what would you want to see most?
Wow. I would probably want to figure out how life got its start on Earth, so I would travel to sometime around 4 billion years ago. If I had a second choice, perhaps Cretaceous age or so when the dinosaurs were cruising around. I wouldn’t last long, but it would be an exciting few minutes!
What has been your most breathtaking experience looking through a telescope?
For me, it probably didn’t even take place while using a telescope. Just lying down and looking at the stars in places without light pollution, I get a real feeling for how vast, diverse and dynamic the cosmos are. It blows me away every time I get the chance.
“I am always very excited by humanity striving to do cool and difficult things.”
Your book combines a love of history with a love of science. Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
This is an easy one: Bill Bryson. His A Short History of Nearly Everything was an incredibly influential book for me and really got me into learning about the history of science and culture. I reread it in 2017, and the lack of information about meteorites is what inspired me to write Impact. I also really enjoy stuff by Mark Kurlansky (Salt) and Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind).
Your book ends with a discussion of some of the most fascinating unanswered questions in space science. What research are you working on now?
My colleagues and I are working on a few different topics mentioned in the book. One is searching for the source of water on Earth. Currently we are doing this using lunar rocks, of all things, but I think we are onto something, so keep an eye on the scientific literature. Secondly, we are working on what I like to call “cosmolocation,” which is studying meteorites to find out where they originally formed in the solar system. Basically, this involves re-creating the solar system’s structure from when it first started—before all the planets formed and moved everything around to where it is now.
There’s a long tradition of amateur astronomers. What advice do you have for someone who wants to start studying the night sky?
This might be a weird answer, but I would let them know that they don’t need to buy that big backyard telescope as a first step. There is so much open-access data available from NASA and other agencies that people can just poke through and make discoveries on their own using data about the surface of Mars or deep space images from space telescopes like Hubble. There is a lot yet to be discovered in those data troves, should one feel like getting involved.