Although willing and able to travel, Shamu—formally named the Submersible Holographic Astrobiology Microscope with Ultraresolution—is still very much on Earth, in a basement lab of the Science, Research and Teaching Center at Portland State University, where science writers can meet it. A rugged field instrument, Shamu uses lasers to create 3D movies of microorganisms moving in a liquid sample. While similar tools exist, the ones that boast high definition are too delicate to take into the wilderness, and the tough ones aren’t precise enough to see small bacteria. Shamu’s fans, meanwhile, think it’s well-suited to investigate not just weird life in Earth’s extreme environments, but also whether there is life beyond our planet.
Shamu occupies a small space in the lab of scientist Jay Nadeau. One Friday in March, Nadeau is at work, leaning against a high rolling chair with two sweaters swung on its back. She wears another sweater (it’s the Pacific Northwest, after all), featuring a set of alpacas marching around her torso. There’s a Ridley road bike she uses for commuting stashed against the wall, and a helmet next to a CPU. Nadeau is small in all dimensions, and intense, with short curls springing from her head. She walks past the wet-lab benches, to a back room where a graduate student sits at a computer and mostly ignores her.
There, Nadeau puts her hand against a mesh cage a few feet by a few feet. Inside sits a squirt bottle filled with 70 percent sterilizing ethanol solution, a roll of orange tape, and a Thorlabs temperature controller that resembles a cassette deck. But the primary occupant is a mysterious tube-like object, about 2 feet long and as wide as a wine bottle, bolted to a silver beam attached to the bottom of the cage.
This, Nadeau says, is “The Microscope.”
To be honest, Shamu looks pretty unassuming—like a toy spy glass. And the team Nadeau works with has created even simpler-looking versions. “We’ve made one that would fit inside a soda can,” she says, “with electronics the size of a few packs of cards.” For now, Shamu is grounded, relegated to looking at ice-cold water from Earth’s Arctic regions, super-salty desert water, and the wiggling extremophiles unlucky enough to be trapped there. Someday, though, Nadeau hopes it might get a peek at Europan liquid.
Shifting her view from one place to another is nothing new for Nadeau. She got her doctorate in theoretical physics and moved into the life sciences at Caltech after that. When she walked into her first biology lab, the newness was almost overwhelming. “Everything looks like vials of clear liquid,” she says. The first time another lab sent her a DNA sample, she couldn’t find the genes. They had sent her an almost-empty envelope. “There was nothing inside it except a pencil circle with a couple of notes on it and a piece of filter paper,” she says. The DNA, of course, was on the paper, and she had to soak it to coax the sample into solution.