Peter Ward has been active in Paleontology, Biology, and more recently, Astrobiology for more than 40 years. Since his Ph.D. in 1976, Ward has published more than 140 scientific papers dealing with paleontological, zoological, and astronomical topics.
He is an acknowledged world expert on mass extinctions and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on Earth. Ward was the Principal Investigator of the University of Washington node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 2001-2006, and in that capacity led a team of over 40 scientists and students. His career was profiled by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter William Dietrich in The Seattle Times article "Prophet, Populist, Poet of Science."
Peter has written a memoir of his research on the Nautilus for Nautilus magazine's "Ingenious" feature entitled "Nautilus and me. My wonderful, dangerous life with the amazing Nautilus."
His books include the best-selling "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future" (2007), and "The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" (2009).
Question: Who are your heroes, scientific or otherwise?
Peter Ward: My heroes were actually the great dinosaur hunters of the American Museum, Roy Chapman Andrews, Granger and those guys. Sagan is certainly a hero. I have a lot of heroes within my own disciplines that are probably too arcane, but Stephen J. Gould is perhaps my greatest hero. I knew him very well. I knew him well enough that I got in trouble a lot with him. He sort of viewed me as his cantankerous younger brother. He once told me, “Peter, you’ll never be great, but you’re pretty good.” Now, that’s quite a slap in the face, right? We all want to be great. But it was from Steve, so I’m great and you’re not as great as me, but I like the fact that you’re doing good work. It was that sort of relationship, okay. But I miss him. I miss his voice. He was the greatest single public speaker I’ve ever, ever heard. He was also the smartest man I’ve ever known. I’ve known quite a few intelligent people, but his processing speed was beyond belief. It’s a great voice lost.
Recorded on January 11, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen