The very first solid grains formed within the solar system have been very precisely aged at 4,567 million years. I think of it as coincidence that I met the guy who became my husband at a specific moment in that time span.
It happened when I was traveling back to St. Louis from Antarctica in 1993. On a whim, I decided to stop off in Hawaii to thaw out for a while. There was a professor at the University of Hawaii I thought I might want to work with as a postdoc. Mark was a graduate student there at the time—and that’s how we met.
He’s a planetary geologist. As a research professor at Northwestern University, he attends some of the same conferences I go to, but those conferences sometimes host thousands of people. There’s no knowing whether we ever would have crossed paths had I not stopped in Hawaii.
If a third person were to hear our dinner conversations, it would probably be amusing. Or not amusing at all. He might ask, “What’s the range of iron content in the ordinary chondrites?” After dinner, it’s “Oh, I downloaded this really neat set of Mars Global Surveyor images. Wanna take a look?”
When you think of what happened to the space shuttle Columbia last year, it’s hard to get past the enormity of the blow to the families of the astronauts and the rest of us. For me, there was more involved. I’d known one of the astronauts, Kalpana Chawla, since I was 11. Her family lived in Karnal, a small town between Delhi and Chandigarh. She was about five years older than me and attended aeronautical engineering school. That was an unusual choice for a woman. She was interested in learning to fly. I remember being a little in awe of her.
The last time I saw her was in India in the early ’80s. I had the opportunity to catch up with her because I go to Houston every year for a planetary science conference. Many times I thought about getting in touch with her. But you get so busy, and I never did. It’s sad. There I was trying to wrap my mind around concepts like the depth of geologic time, and I didn’t take the 5 or 10 minutes to call her and see how she was doing.
The last year or so I’ve wondered about having kids. there’s work in the lab—teaching, communicating with the public at the museum. It’s a challenge. I know women who always knew they wanted children. And I also know women who have not had them and have no regrets. I don’t have any desire right now. But when I see other women with children, I wonder, “Am I missing out on something important?” One thing everybody tells me: There’s no perfect time to have children. I’m 36. The unfortunate part is I don’t have too much time to figure it out.
I would love to have, within my lifetime, actual rocks picked up from the surface of Mars to examine in my laboratory. There’s a chance that the meteorites I’ve looked at from Mars are samples of atypical rocks on that planet. At the moment, there are no plans to bring back samples. The cost of such a mission is likely to be high—certainly higher than NASA’s Discovery class missions and also the New Frontiers missions that are planned. But I remain the eternal optimist.
There are questions that we’ll never have the answers to in our lifetime. But we can keep trying and lay down steps for those with that same sense of wonder who come after us.
The simple act of gazing at the stars allows us to see the universe back in time. I remember staring up at the sky with amazement the night after I’d learned that. I must have been 13. It’s hard to believe that there is now an asteroid named after that girl.
Astronomers have the prerogative of naming asteroids they discover. They nominate people based on research and accomplishments, and the nominations must be approved by the International Astronomical Union.
Carolyn Shoemaker and her husband, Gene, discovered this asteroid. The largest known asteroid is about 600 miles across, but many are much smaller. This particular one is not very big—a few tens of miles perhaps. In 1999 it was named Wadhwa. I’ve never seen it, and it’s unlikely that I ever will. But the great part is that it’s a Mars-crossing asteroid. So you never know, one day I just might have an impact on Mars.