Space the Nation: Jess Phoenix is on a rock hurtling through space

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Apr 24, 2018

You may have heard that the upcoming midterm elections have attracted an unprecedented number of female candidates. You may not have heard that many of them are scientists, doctors, and engineers, exactly the sort of clear-thinking heroines — or Strong Female Characters — we focus on here at SYFY FANGRRLS. So we decided to talk to them about who they look up to, and how science informs their candidacies. Read our interviews with Pennsylvania congressional candidate Chrissy Houlahan and New York State candidate Elaine DiMasi.

Jess Phoenix is a geologist specializing in volcanoes and underground 3D modeling. She is also the founder of the scientific research nonprofit Blueprint Earth. She is running to represent California’s 25th Congressional District.

I already know you’re a Star Trek fan; how has Star Trek influenced you?

My uncle who showed me Star Trek for the first time — he was the more "out there" family member, who would come up with herbal remedies for things, and new stretching exercises. I thought, "Ehh, it must be weird if Uncle Mike likes it." But it was really interesting. I mean, there were people who looked really wildly different from each other, interacting and working together. It's really just stuck with me how inclusive and forward-thinking that Roddenberry's vision of the future is. Where we can be heading a couple hundred years from now doesn't have to be the dystopian, Orwellian future. We can have the Star Trek future. And that's the kind of future I want to work for.

Is there anything particular in the Star Trek future that you would like? Besides, you know, people of all different kinds working together? Tribbles, transporters, stun guns…

You know, I really like the replicator. Because that also ties into what I like about Star Trek; it's a post-money, post-scarcity, post-war society. If we get replicators, then we won't have people starving. So, that's a big one.

What else from science fiction has had an impact on who you are today?

I read a ton as a kid. And everything from Jules Verne on to Isaac Asimov, but I will say my favorite quote comes from Heinlein. It goes something like, "Man should be able to change a diaper, conn a ship, butcher a hog, tend a wound" — it has all these things that people should be able to do. [Read the full quote here.] And then it says, "Specialization is for insects." I really like that. Because to me it's like bringing the Renaissance back again. I like self-sufficiency and being able to work to solve big problems.

How do you think having more scientists in Congress would change politics?

Of course, evidence-based policymaking is gonna be the number one thing. And then in order to really understand what to do with evidence, having scientific training is a massive leg up. Because you understand it's a process of eliminating uncertainty by looking at as much data as you have available. And then of course refining what you believe, or what you think, after you have new evidence. I mean, that's what [science] is. It's not being afraid to change your mind when you have new information. And that's what scientists bring to the table that sets us apart from anybody else who's working in government these days.

Do you think there might be other ways that having scientists in Congress would change the institution? Maybe culturally?

Definitely. A lot of the scientists I know, myself included, are fairly eccentric in different ways. I tend to wear, to big scientific conferences where I'm giving massive talks and presentations, jeans and cowboy boots. I'm a field geologist. I'm most comfortable in Caterpillar work boots and cargo pants and sweaty and gross and not showering for weeks at a time. That is my natural element. And in Congress, you see the opposite. You see this formality that is kind of embedded into the institution, and a lot of us scientists, we can do that. But our natural state is just slightly less dictated by ceremony, and more by substance. So I think that we would bring a bit of a twist, with our different personalities and our weird stories from the lab or from the field. I think it would liven things up a little bit, while giving it a bit more of a backbone.

You’re a geologist. Geology has been in the news lately. The Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, has been calling himself a geologist, even though his experience appears to be limited to having majored in geology in college. My first question for you may be unexpected—I want to give you a chance to defend him for majoring in geology. I think something's being overlooked in this controversy. We're quick to mock him, but isn’t majoring in geology a good thing? Doesn't that give you a different kind of understanding of the world than maybe majoring in some other subject would?

It gives you the ability to look at the world in a different way. It doesn't necessarily mean that you do. It's like saying there's a door — there's a couple doors in front you. There's art, there's music, there's film, there's geology, chemistry, biology. If you major in one of them, the door opens. That's really what it does. It's up to you to walk through that door. So I don't believe, from what I've seen about his work history, that he ever walked through that door.

How can you tell a real geologist?

Well, real geologists don't say stuff like he said about, "Florida is different because of the currents. The geology is different." I was like, "What?" That's not even a sentence. There's no science there. It's just wrong. A real geologist would say something like, "Oh, Florida has a unique geology that is dominated by what we call Karst topography, which is a shallow, marine rock that tends towards having sinkholes."

How did you come to specialize in volcanoes?

Yeah, so geology, usually you specialize in something.

Turns out rocks is really broad. That's too broad.

Yeah there's a lot of rocks. You love rocks. There's a lot of rocks. There's a lot of rocks in like different states just like all around the planet. Like you can get little squished rock, really nice new fresh rocks, you can get hot rocks, cold rocks like — it's pretty awesome.

But what drew you to vulcanology?

I had been looking for a summer job, summer research opportunities. And I found one, at the United States Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. I thought, OK, volcanoes sound neat, and so I applied for that and I was accepted. I got to work on Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Kilauea, Hualapai — four of the five volcanoes that make up the big island of Hawaii. And Kilauea is the world's most active volcano. And I'll tell you, once you see a volcano and you're basically standing 150 feet above a lava lake or you sample flowing lava or you take a helicopter over volcanic events, your whole worldview changes. There's nothing like it. And I was hooked. I was like, "OK, volcanoes are my thing. We're good."

Well, tell me a little bit more about that worldview changing. What changes when you see a lake of lava?

Well, you realize that the planet is alive. I mean, we are on this rock hurtling around a star, in the Milky Way, and yet we think that we are what lives. We think the trees and animals are what lives. But in reality, our planet is alive and changing, and it's going through processes. It's going through a life cycle, right now. And we are fortunate enough to be able to witness new earths being created.