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Turning Deep Subsurface Science into Child's Play

The Extremo Files
By Jeffrey Marlow
Oct 30, 2015 5:53 PMNov 20, 2019 3:49 AM


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A detail from Where Wild Microbes Grow. (Image: Alice Feagan) The Nankai Trough off the eastern coast of Japan is the result of tectonic shifts in the Earth’s crust, a 1000-meter deep ocean basin carved by the flexing and bending of huge slabs of rock. Nearly 250 meters beneath the seafloor, nestled within compressed sediment, ovoid microorganisms are sputtering along, producing methane that likely ends up in ice-like methane hydrates. When they were discovered in 2003, the microbes were declared a novel species, Methanoculleus submarinus. These esoteric microscopic organisms living far beneath the surface of the Earth might not seem like traditional fodder for a children’s book, but to author and educator Kevin Kurtz, it was perfect. Using studies like the Nankai Trough analysis and several others from researchers associated with the Center for Dark Energy Biological Investigation (C-DEBI) as inspiration, Kurtz and illustrator Alice Feagan teamed up for Where Wild Microbes Grow, a freely available picture book released earlier this month. “These scientists have basically discovered a new habitat full of unknown organisms,” Kurtz says, explaining his motivation for taking on such challenging, cutting-edge material, “and we still don’t really know what these organisms are up to or how they influence global systems." As fascinating as the high-level concept may be, presenting any degree of substance to an audience of 9 year-olds is not easy. “I typically try to start at a place they know,” Kurtz explains, "a concept they can build on to then show them something new.” With deep subsurface microorganisms, he distilled the subject down to its most relatable essence, the basics of what life - including rambunctious 3rd graders - needs to survive. Energy, nutrients, and an aqueous environment, presented as “air, food, and water” are the connective threads, even if the details vary substantially. The fact that this food is occasionally “the poop of microbes above”? Even better: “anything that’s mildly gross will definitely get a kid’s attention,” Kurtz confesses. In addition to simplifying scientific content, children’s book authors must embrace succinctness, the deceptively challenging task of telling a full story in just a few hundred words. While many books develop a narrative around a single character who embodies the reader's perspective, Where Wild Microbes Grow takes a different approach, depending on the strength of the material and the lure of the unknown to carry the story. “I really wanted the book to be about the microbes, the science,” recalls Kurtz, “and I’ve trusted that we didn’t need just one character to bring them to the science.” Kurtz is no stranger to the front lines of the scientific process, having spent time in marine biology laboratories after college. But it was his time aboard the Joides Resolution research vessel during IODP expedition 330 that informed this most recent book. “The media typically characterize scientists in a certain way,” Kurtz says, “emphasizing a sense of cold certainty. But seeing how excited they would be when something new showed up on the deck of the boat was amazing. I wanted to give more insight into how much we don’t know, that exploration isn't over and there are still opportunities to be excited and curious about the world."

Help us do science! I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Extremo Files readers. By participating, you’ll be providing me valuable feedback AND contributing to real live science on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige's Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card (100 available) and other perks. It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here: http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders

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