Down to Earth With: Jacob Haqq-Misra

by Jay R. Thompson
Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jacob Haqq-Misra is all but addicted to music, which is why the astrobiologist balances his time between research and performing as a percussionist and vocalist with the psychedelic jam band, Mysterytrain.

Haqq-Misra studied astrophysics and computer science while an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota in his hometown of Minneapolis. Inspired by the discovery of extrasolar planets, and by a 2003 encounter with a famed SETI researcher during his undergraduate days, Haqq-Misra went straight from Minnesota to Penn State University, where he earned a doctorate in meteorology and astrobiology. In 2009, he co-founded the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, where he studies planetary habitability and contributes to SETI research from his home office in Central Pennsylvania.

Haqq-Misra reads avidly, and published a science fiction book of his own about the discovery of an Earth-like planet and its implications for society and religion. He believes the search for extraterrestrial life is important for humanity’s survival, whether we find aliens or not. Haqq-Misra, who turns 30 years old this month, recently spoke with EARTH’s Jay R. Thompson about life, the universe and psychedelic rock music.

JRT: Do you consider yourself an astrobiologist or a meteorologist?

JH: I’m an astrobiologist in general, but my technical training is in atmospheric dynamics. The two are related because I’m interested in the relationship and feedback between climate and life. “Planetary habitability” is a term that I use a lot, and it has two aspects. First, Earth is the only inhabited planet that we know of, so studying Earth’s present and past gives us some information about how climate and life co-evolve. Second, other planets may provide clues to the limits of habitability. Venus and Mars give examples of worlds too extreme to support life, and the ongoing discovery of extrasolar planets forces us to expand our consideration of what could be habitable. Mars today does not seem to be habitable, but long ago it may have been habitable. By understanding things at the limits of habitability in our own solar system, we can use that to look elsewhere.

JRT: What’s the story behind your book “Planetary Messenger”?

JH: I self-published it. It’s about the search for extrasolar planets and supposes that someday in the near future we’ll find a planet that looks a lot like Earth. It’s a fictional, philosophical narrative. There is a story, but it’s really about looking at the discovery of another planet through the lens of religion and society. I grew up in a Christian household and I’m also very interested in the interplay between science and spirituality. In science we get pretty cerebral and we forget that more than 90 percent of the world believes in a higher power. It’s a disservice for scientists to ignore that.

JRT: That last part is reminiscent of the movie “Contact.” Is the movie part of what got you interested in astrobiology?

JH: I have seen the movie “Contact” and it did get me thinking about the spiritual aspects of SETI. I read science fiction a lot, and I’ve always been philosophically minded. I’ve been an astronomer at heart since I was 5 years old, and my first research experience was in an experimental cosmology lab when I was an astrophysics major in college. The research group used balloon-borne telescopes to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation, which shows a signature of the Big Bang.

I was drawn to cosmology because of its philosophical side, but I was less than satisfied with the pace of experiments in this field. This led me toward more theoretical and computational aspects within astronomy. About that time, Jill Tarter — Jodie Foster’s character [in “Contact”] is modeled after her — came to the University of Minnesota to talk about SETI. I didn’t really realize there was actual science going on underneath that, and I’d never heard the word “astrobiology” before.

JRT: What is the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science?

JH: It was begun in 2009 mostly by early-career astrobiologists. I’m one of the co-founders. One of my main reasons for starting a research institute was to find an alternative way of conducting research, one without the structural constraints of a government research institute or university. [Starting our own institute] gave us the freedom to manage our money and manage our time the way we want to.

Government research institutes and universities take a big portion of grants as overhead charges, so you have to ask for much more than you need. We don’t have to do that at Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. I don’t need a supercomputer; I just need an off-the-shelf desktop workstation.

JRT: What do you do for the institute?

JH: I do planetary habitability and SETI research, and I can do it all from my home office.

Much of this research involves computer simulations to study problems like figuring out the habitable zone. The habitable zone describes how far away a planet can be from its host star and still have liquid water, and how close it can be before all the water goes away. We can do a lot of refining with these climate models, but we always have to come back to data. Habitable zone calculations allow us to interpret observations of extrasolar planets to help characterize those most likely to support life.

Our organization, Blue Marble Space, is at the point where we now have income, but we’re still trying to get the ball rolling a little more.

If everything goes well, Blue Marble Space will become even more self-sustaining. We’ll have more of our members who are full-time working for us and working for our research projects. We were at the Astrobiology Science Conference [in Atlanta] in April, and made a pretty good impression.

JRT: Tell me about your band Mysterytrain.

JH: I’m in the band mostly for fun. I’ve always loved music. It’s almost a compulsion at this point. If I don’t play music, it seems like it affects my mood in a weird way. We write all original songs, and we’ve been together for a few years. We play almost every weekend all over the region. The name of the band came from the song “Mystery Train” recorded by Junior Parker in 1953. The song has been covered by numerous artists since then, including Elvis, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia.

JRT: And you were recently married?

JH: Her name is Gina. She plays keyboard in the band. We were the only younger people in the band, and we just started hanging out and playing music on the side. A couple months after becoming friends, we took a trip to a studio in Pittsburgh to record some tracks for an album Gina was working on. Soon after, we started dating, and three years later we were engaged.

JRT: Does your science background influence anything about the band?

JH: I wouldn’t say I write songs about science. But my scientific background influences my writing in a general way. My training in science is very mathematical, although music isn’t all math. Even so, I do experience the feedback of music giving me scientific ideas and science giving me music ideas.

JRT: What else do you do outside of work, aside from Mysterytrain?

JH: Music and science is an awful lot of what I do. We enjoy cooking when we can and attend concerts when we aren’t playing. I read just about everything I can get my hands on. I read science, art, history — I love to read pretty much anything. But the music and the science take up pretty much 90 percent of my time.

JRT: Would you bet 50 bucks that we’ll find extraterrestrial life in your lifetime?

JH: I would probably take the bet just to be optimistic. I’d like to find alien life.

JRT: What about intelligent life?

JH: That’s such a long shot. We don’t even know how to define intelligence. It’s almost a way for astronomers to engage in sociology. [Astrophysicist] Frank Drake said SETI is a search for ourselves. That’s a lot of what keeps me motivated to pursue SETI: Even if we never find extraterrestrial intelligent life, we will still reach a deeper understanding of our existence, which will hopefully lead us toward a promising future.

Maybe we’ll never find aliens, and maybe there are no aliens, but it’s a good exercise because we think of the longer term now. Any effort to communicate with extraterrestrial beings will require unprecedented multigenerational cooperation over hundreds or thousands of years to succeed.

Environmental challenges to our civilization’s success are often the result of our shortsighted decisions, so learning how to think about the distant future is critical to our success as a species.

Jacob Haqq-Misra’s book “Planetary Messenger” can be found at, and more information about Blue Marble Space Institute of Science can be found at His band, Mysterytrain, has a website, at Haqq-Misra also contributes to EARTH Magazine.

Credit: © Pan.

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