Meet The Team Tuesdays: Jacob Haqq-Misra

This post is the first in what will be a weekly series introducing GCRI’s members.

I was introduced to Jacob in 2008 via our mutual friend Shawn Domagal-Goldman when the three of us were grad students at Penn State. Shawn and Jacob were part of Penn State’s Astrobiology Research Center. They were thinking a lot about the implications of astrobiology (the study of life in the universe) for human civilization today, and invited me to join the conversation. The conversation has resulted in several papers together and even generated some major media coverage. Along the way, Jacob helped launch Blue Marble Space, which is GCRI’s parent organization. Jacob’s research centers around climate modeling, with applications to long-term climates on Earth and other planets, the recent human-caused climate change on Earth, and, most recently, nuclear winter. -Seth

Seth Baum: Jacob, let’s begin with Blue Marble Space (BMS). What is BMS? How did it come into existence? What’s the story there?

Jacob Haqq-Misra: Blue Marble Space is a non-profit organization focused on science and education related to the Earth system, space exploration, and the future of humanity. It was founded in 2009 by Sanjoy Som, initially as a way of promoting his One Flag in Space idea. At the time I was in graduate school and considering forming my own independent research institute. Sanjoy, myself, and a few others all met at a dive bar in Chinatown during a conference in San Francisco, where our ideas merged and took off from there. Today, BMS has its tax-exempt status and is continuing to grow as an organization.

Seth Baum: Tell me more about BMS’s initiatives. What is One Flag in Space? What is S.A.G.A.N.?

Jacob Haqq-Misra: One Flag in Space is a BMS initiative to promote international unity in space exploration by using the Blue Marble (a photograph of Earth taken from Apollo 17) as a symbol for Earth and humanity. By doing so, we hope to encourage space exploration as a collective human goal rather than a space race between nations.

S.A.G.A.N. (Social Action for a Grassroots Astrobiology Network) is an online social networking tool for promoting scientific dialog with scientists and the public. Through S.A.G.A.N., scientists can form collaborations, students can interact with mentors, and members of the public can learn about new scientific research.

Seth Baum: GCRI is part of the BMS Institute of Science. What is BMSIS, and how does GCRI fit in?

Jacob Haqq-Misra: The Blue Marble Space Institute of Science is the research arm of BMS. Through BMSIS we conduct basic research (funded through grants or donations) and also conduct sponsored research for other organizations. We strive to make our research accessible by providing summaries and interviews of published papers. We also hold a science seminar, Beer with BMSIS, which we publish each month as a podcast.

As a sister organization, GCRI is dedicated to many similar research and outreach goals as BMSIS. The broad range of topics under the umbrella of GCRI is highly relevant to thinking about astrobiology and the future of humanity, which makes the partnership between our organizations especially fruitful. This arrangement allows BMSIS to support the endeavors of GCRI, and vice-versa.

Seth Baum: Let’s talk about your own research, which is on climate modeling and astrobiology. What exactly does that involve?

Jacob Haqq-Misra: I study “planetary habitability”, which considers the range and types of planets that could support life. This includes studying the past, present, and future of Earth, along with other planets in our Solar System such as Mars or Venus. I use computer-based climate models to study how atmospheric processes have kept Earth habitable across time and to help determine if newly discovered extrasolar planets might be habitable. Ultimately, this will help us to understand the distribution of habitable planets in the galaxy—and hopefully lead toward the discovery of an actually inhabited planet.

Seth Baum: I find it very interesting how often astrobiology comes up in discussions of global catastrophic risk. What would you say are the main connections between these fields?

Jacob Haqq-Misra: Astrobiology involves viewing life on Earth through the lens of geologic time, which means we regularly think about the role of human civilization in the context of a multi-billion year evolutionary history. We also think about the future of humanity all the way toward the sun’s evolution into an expansive red giant (some five billion years from now), which would swallow up Earth whole. These, and other, perspectives are not always common to particular disciplines but emerge in the context of interdisciplinary research such as astrobiology or global catastrophic risk.

Seth Baum: You’ve been participating in both the religion and nuclear war discussion groups that GCRI has been hosting. What have you been learning from that?

Jacob Haqq-Misra: I have learned that the threat of nuclear war is a very serious concern today. I was quite surprised to learn that there could be up to a 1% chance of an inadvertent nuclear strike each year! This is an important but under-communicated point in the public discussion, where the threat of nuclear war is seen as a relic from the 1970’s. This has at least motivated me to start pursuing research related to the climatic effects of nuclear war.

I have also always been fascinated by religion for both personal and professional reasons, and the GCRI conversations on this topic have also been useful in allowing me to interact with scholars of religion.

Seth Baum: Finally, I have to ask: Last year, you and I found ourselves in the middle of a nice little media controversy, and managed to get our friend Shawn in a bit of trouble along the way. What have you learned from this experience, and what would you recommend to other scholars who are interested in public communication & media?

Jacob Haqq-Misra: I recommend that scientists be transparent about their funding sources, institutional affiliations, and conflicts of interest. The lack of a funding source is just as important as the presence of one, and I have started adding a disclaimer that “no funding was used for this research” when this is true. The media sometimes assumes that all research receives government funding unless otherwise specified, and this misconception (coupled with our friend Shawn’s misuse of a NASA affiliation) quickly spread through Internet and television news. Fortunately, we were quick to respond, and the situation was largely corrected. This also taught us the value of communicating with journalists in a direct and timely manner.

This post was written by
Seth Baum is Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.
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