What Is Life?

Let me tell you what it’s like to be an astrobiologist.

I painted a white picket fence this summer. No one asked me to. It was a task I’d set myself without realizing what a long-winded and frustrating process it would be. But eventually that endless scraping, priming, painting, and maneuvering settled into something therapeutic, even meditative.

I’d paint the apex—dab, dab—run down the narrow sides, coat the smooth front, shuffle along, repeat. All the while acutely aware of being surrounded by the churn of summer in the northern hemisphere of a living planet. Long-legged harvestmen arachnids staking their turf from fence post to fence post. Hummingbirds squabbling noisily from within their strange half-bird, half-insect dimension. Plant life bursting from every seam of soil; from the dusty grains between paving slabs to the mulchy damp beneath maple trees, green shoots fighting a slow-motion war for atoms and photons. The kind of war that likely plays out across the observable universe in any place where matter has become structured into the self-propagating, energy-hungry stuff we call life.

More here.