Astrobiology Primer v2

The long-awaited version 2 of the Astrobiology Primer was published (open access) yesterday in the journal Astrobiology.  I’m not sure who first conceived of the Astrobiology Primer, first published in 2006, but the v2 effort was headed by co-lead editors Shawn Domagal-Goldman at NASA and Katherine Wright  at the UK Space Agency.  The Primer v2 was a long time in coming; initial section text was submitted back in early 2011!  The longer these projects go on, the easy it is for them to die.  Many thanks to Shawn and Katherine for making sure that this didn’t happen!

The downside of course, is that the primer ran the risk of being outdated before it even went into review.  This was mitigated somewhat by the review process itself, and authors did have a chance to update their various sections.  Some sections are more stable than others; the section that I wrote with Shawn McGlynn (now at the Tokyo Institute of Technology) on how life uses energy for example, covers some fairly fundamental ground and is likely to stand the test of time.  Less so for sections that cover planetary processes in and outside of our solar system; paradigms are being broken in planetary science as fast as they form!

The Astrobiology Primer is a very valuable document because it takes a complicated and interdisciplinary field of study and attempts to summarize it for a broad audience.  Most of the Primer should be accessible to anyone with a basic grasp of science.  I wonder if it could even serve as a model for other disciplines.  What if the junior scientists in every discipline (perhaps roughly defined by individual NSF or NASA programs) got together once every five years to write an open-access summary of the major findings in their field?  This might provide a rich and colorful counterpoint to the valuable but often [dry, esoteric, top-down?  There’s an adjective that I’m searching for here but it escapes me] reports produced by the National Academies.

The co-lead editors were critical to the success of the Primer v2.  I haven’t explicitly asked Shawn and Kaitlin if they were compensated in any way for this activity – perhaps they rolled some of this work into various fellowships and such over the years.  More likely this was one more extracurricular activity carried out on the side.  Such is the way science works, and the lines are sufficiently blurred between curricular and extracurricular that most of us don’t even look for them anymore.  In recognition of this, and to speed the publication and heighten the quality of a future Primer v3, it would be nice to see NASA produce a specific funding call for a (small!) editorial team.  Three years of partial salary and funding for a series of writing workshops would make a huge difference in scope and quality.

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