Residents of the Pacific Northwest sometimes refer to the region as “God’s Country,” not for the ceaseless rain that soaks the land from October until May, but for those few glorious summer months when the sun emerges from behind the clouds and the world bursts forth with life. On one such morning—August 3, 2010—dozens of the world’s top planetary scientists met in the back room of the Talaris Conference Center to contemplate the origins of life on Earth and elsewhere.
Talaris lies just a half-mile east of the University of Washington, where Victoria Meadows serves as director of the astrobiology program. The conference center is situated amid 18 acres of rolling lawns dotted with Douglas firs and veined by meandering streams, and as Meadows drove to the conference that morning, she was surrounded by evidence of her planet’s lush habitability. She didn’t need a telescope to see it; it all was right there.
This was the first day of a conference that had come to be called “Revisiting the Habitable Zone,” which Meadows had spent the last several months organizing. Many of her guests were members of the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, known by its acronym VPL, the project Meadows founded at the turn of the millennium and for which she has since secured more than $13 million in NASA funding. VPL’s members hail from places as far flung as Sydney and Mexico City, and conferences like these offer them a rare opportunity for them to convene in physical space. It is an interdisciplinary team, with astronomers and physicists, oceanographers and geologists, chemists and biologists. Diverse though their specialties may be, they have all dedicated themselves to understanding the delicate and complex mixture of factors that can make or break a planet’s habitability. It is a cryptic recipe, and much remains to be deciphered, but the essential ingredient, they would all agree, is water.