This should have been Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s moment in the sun. But as the television crew takes positions, the 34-year-old scientist glances at the gray, churned-up lake behind her and gathers her collar around her neck. On cue, she begins her explanation of this lake’s unique chemistry, her voice rising in volume and pitch above the wind.
She’s halfway through the take when the gulls arrive. They swoop and swirl above the shoreline in a swarm, calling in harsh, jeering tones that drown out her carefully chosen words. As the sound technician pulls off her headphones in frustration, the director Oliver Twinch halts the taping and ventures a smile in Wolfe-Simon’s direction. “How about we try that one again?” he says.
“I think we’ll have to move,” Wolfe-Simon says, peering down toward her boots. “I’m sinking in the mud.”
It is this mud, and the peculiar microbes in it, that have stuck Wolfe-Simon in the middle of one of the most extraordinary scientific disputes in recent memory. Last December, at a highly publicized NASA press briefing, Wolfe-Simon announced that her research team had isolated bacteria from Mono Lake, on the edge of California’s Eastern Sierra mountain range, that could subsist on arsenic in place of phosphorus, one of the elements considered essential for all life.
The research, financed mostly by NASA and published initially in the online edition of Science, jolted the scientific community. If confirmed, scientists said, the discovery would mean that this high mountain lake hosts a form of life distinct from all others known on Earth. It would open up the possibility of a shadow biosphere, composed of organisms that can survive using means that long-accepted rules of biochemistry cannot explain. And it would give Mono Lake, rather than Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, the distinction of being the first place in our solar system where “alien” life was discovered.
the conflict spilled into the mainstream, the scientific community witnessed something few would have predicted: meaningful public engagement over a serious scientific issue. For several days, at least, a good many watercooler conversations revolved around the metabolic capabilities of a Gammaproteobacterium.But within days, researchers began to question Wolfe-Simon’s methodology and conclusions. Many of them cast aside traditions of measured commentary in peer reviewed periodicals and voiced their criticism directly on blogs and Twitter. Then, as
Among academics, the debate devolved into something more vitriolic and personal. One researcher questioned whether Wolfe-Simon and her team were “bad scientists.” Another called her work “science fiction.” One blog post bore the title “Is Felisa Wolfe-Simon an Alien?”
In early June, a few days before going to Mono Lake, Wolfe-Simon and I met at a café in Palo Alto. Standing just over five feet tall, she has curly brown hair and wears a tiny diamond stud in her nose. She ordered an espresso at the counter, sat down, and pulled a digital audio recorder from her bag.
“Mind if I tape this?” she asked.
Wolfe-Simon had spent much of the previous six months avoiding the media, insisting that she and her colleagues needed to focus on their formal “technical response” to the criticisms leveled against them. The months we’d spent negotiating this face-to-face interview had featured several last-minute cancellations, including one issued when I was on the plane out to meet her. She told me she had been misquoted and misunderstood by both her scientific peers and reporters who focused heavily on the doubts raised about her work, while disregarding its strengths. Hence the recorder. “Now I understand what’s going on,” she told me, “when you see ‘So-and-so’s office has been contacted, but they will have no comment.’ ”
Wolfe-Simon has learned to be cautious in her dealings with the media—she has learned that it can be dangerous to reveal too much of herself—but she does have comment. The daughter of trumpet players, she earned two bachelor’s degrees from Oberlin College, one in oboe performance and one in biology (with a chemistry minor). When she talks about the process of science, she talks about rigor, the need to build in yourself the tools necessary to answer the questions you ask. She talks about endless repetition. “When musicians go up there and it looks like they’re having fun,” she says, “what you’re seeing are the long hours in the practice room.” She says this in a way that suggests that to her it’s the long hours that are fun, or at least deeply satisfying. “Science isn’t easy,” she says. “But there’s a joy and synergy in coming to a deeper understanding of the nature around you.”single page
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