But for those of us immune to the hype, there was good stuff in there. And during the sifting of the good science from the hysteria about alien life, you may have been wondering, as did I, why the name GFAJ-1? It turns out that it isn't some elaborate acronym for a long science term. Paul Davies in The Wall Street Journal notes the discoverer is Felisa Wolfe-Simon of Arizona State University and GFAJ stands for 'Give Felise A Job'.
Davies is director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University and notes Wolfe-Simon began her career as a musician, then studied oceanography, came to ASU as a chemist and moved on to research in microbiology.
This reinforces a theme I have long noticed that defies the stereotype of the narrowly focused, 'yard wide and a mile deep' scientist; the bulk I have met are diverse and creative and, in the case of Wolfe-Simon, willing to risk their careers if the gamble means they discover something new. But being a maverick and contemptuous of the science hierarchy is not a great way to pay the bills.
Felisa was still in her 20s and had a career to build. Her temporary position was coming to an end, and competition for jobs in cutting-edge scientific research is intense. Most young scientists play it safe and focus on a mainstream topic. But Felisa is a free spirit with a healthy contempt for scientific and professional hierarchies, and she had faith in her hunch.
NASA came to the rescue from a funding perspective but that didn't convince fellow scientists. Davies notes one astrobiologist told her, "You'd be off your trolley to go searching for arsenic-based life."
Well, it isn't arsenic-based life, and she isn't off her trolley, and it's nice to see a young researcher get bold and win - my only concern is the new wave of oppressed underdog claims that will get made comparing their work to hers.