Bookstore Geek: El Ateneo, again

By Midge Raymond,

When I was in Buenos Aires for the Penguins & Patagonia Adventure with Adventures by the Book, it was my third visit to the glorious El Ateneo bookstore (known as El Ateneo Grand Spendid; there are two other, smaller branches of El Ateneo in Buenos Aires). And it was just as magical a place as it’s always been.

I’m not alone in my admiration of this store: more than a million customers visit it each year, and while many are tourists (on one visit I could barely walk around for all the visitors taking photos), on this last visit everyone in the store seemed to be local; they were browsing, reading, and buying.

The English-language section shrank from two sections to just one, and the selection comprises mostly thrillers and romance. The cafe, while quiet on the day we visited, is still open where the stage used to be.

Perhaps the cafe wasn’t crowded with readers because the former theater balconies make such great reading spots; we found an empty one and decided to get a group photo with My Last Continent.

If you ever find yourself in Buenos Aires, make sure you set aside some time for this bookstore. It’s not only a gorgeous place to visit, but even if you don’t read in Spanish, there are a lot of gift items as well as books, so it’s a fun place for souvenirs as well.



When being a naturalist (or a filmmaker) means letting nature take its course

By Midge Raymond,

I am not a scientist, but I play one on the page. Because my own background is so very not scientific, I needed a lot of research and experiences in order to write (authentically) the character of Deb Gardner in My Last Continent, including traveling to Antarctica and witnessing the continent through the eyes of the many naturalists on our expedition, and also spending time volunteering with penguin researchers at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina. One of the first — and most interesting, important, and devastating — things I learned is that we humans do not intervene when we see wildlife in trouble. It is, after all, the wild.

This is true whether you’re a filmmaker, a naturalist guide, or a researcher: Whatever you observe, you have to simply observe, no matter how heartbreaking it is. But sometimes people find it impossible not to intervene, like these BBC documentary filmmakers who decided to help save emperor penguin chicks as several penguin parents and their chicks became separated when the chicks couldn’t follow them up a steep slope. The crew “‘opted to intervene passively,’ said the show’s director, Will Lawson.” They created a ramp in the ice that the chicks ended up using to climb up to safety.

Was it appropriate or ethical — or both, or neither? As for myself, I don’t think I could stand to watch baby penguin chicks die if I had a chance to save them … which is one of many reasons I’m not a scientist or a documentary filmmaker — because that is precisely what they are supposed to do. To do otherwise is dangerous to both the humans as well as to the animals, often in ways that may not be immediately evident. While in this particular case, penguins’ lives were saved with no apparent harm, the public opinion is divided on whether taking action was appropriate: This article highlights the positive reaction to the film crew’s rescue efforts, while this headline reads, “Filmmakers Criticised For Intervening with Trapped Penguins in Antarctica.”

As a traveler, I’ve seen things in nature that aren’t fun to watch but that are, in fact, natural (one animal devouring another, for example); certainly it’s unethical to get in the way of someone’s meal, no matter how brutal it is to witness. Likewise, scientists and naturalists have to witness such incidents, and many others, without interfering. It is a hard concept to get around, even in fiction. In a chapter of My Last Continent, the character Keller describes having to witness a terrible scene involving an animal in Antarctica. He tells Deb, when he recounts the episode, “I’m still getting used to not intervening.” Her reply: “I’m not sure that feeling ever leaves you.”

As for the BBC film crew, I can’t fault them one bit for saving these penguins (in fact, this video is wonderful to see). However, the fact that they did sets a precedent that could be very dangerous if others decide that intervening is okay, especially if it’s in different, more direct ways. The wild is wild for a reason, and there is still so much we don’t understand. We’ve already interfered with so much in nature, creating so much imbalance, that having this last respect for wildlife, as hard as it is, needs to remain in place.



Surviving Antarctica the modern way

By Midge Raymond,

The stories of the twentieth-century explorers of Antarctica are harrowing — Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance being eaten by the ice-choked Weddell Sea; Robert Falcon Scott reaching the South Pole after Norwegian Roald Amundsen and then losing his life and his entire party to the elements upon their return.

And yet, despite history’s harsh lessons — the most recent being the fate of Henry Worsley, who died in 2016 during his attempt to complete the first solo, unassisted crossing of Antarctica — twenty-first century explorers continue to set out on their own expeditions.

Yet the new explorers do have one advantage: modern science. And this article in Outside magazine is fascinating for its look at the energy needed to navigate the vast frozen continent (thanks so much to Susie Dana Stangland for sending this to me!). As the article notes — and as anyone who’s spent time in Antarctica knows well — it’s not just the cold but also the wind, the altitude, and the extreme dryness (Antarctica is the biggest desert in the world) that contributes to energy consumption when trekking across the ice.

Robert Scott, for example, brought along rations that added up to between 4,200 and 4,600 calories per day. However, the Outside article notes:

No one really knew how many calories a polar expedition like this burns until Mike Stroud and Ranulph Fiennes made a two-person unsupported 1,600-mile crossing of Antarctica in 1992 and 1993. Careful measurements of energy consumption using isotope-labeled water showed that they were burning an astounding 7,000 calories a day for 96 days. During one ten-day period while they ascended the plateau, they averaged 11,000 calories a day.

Given that the average person is advised to eat about 2,000 calories a day, this number is staggering. The question then becomes: How do you get enough calories to make an expedition while not weighing yourself down with the vast amount of food you’ll need to stay alive?

Colin O’Brady, one of two men currently attempting solo crossings of Antarctica, will be taking along specially created energy bars to give him the 8,000 calories per day he’ll need to make his solo journey across the continent. Click here to read more about the science behind the fuel for this trip.



Penguins & Patagonia: Exploring Península Valdés

By Midge Raymond,

The day after our rainy arrival on Península Valdés, the skies still held remnants of the rain of the day before, which only made the views more spectacular as we explored the 16 kilometers of coastline at Rincón Chico.

Estancia Rincón Chico is a privately owned parcel of about 100 square kilometers (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of Península Valdés is privately owned), but unlike the majority of landowners here, Rincón Chico owners Agustín and María have devoted their property entirely to the wildlife. Formerly a sheep ranch, the sheep are now gone (except for a few who remain on the estancia as pets), and the land is beginning to return to its natural state, with the grasses growing taller and the wildlife returning. Rincón Chico is managed through the foundation Conservación Península Valdés (CPV), created to protect this beautiful, wild place.

The Land Rover in the photo below, with the casco and lodge in the far background, offers an idea of how vast and majestic this property is. Agustín estimated it would take the better part of a day to drive all the way around the entire property.

If you visit Rincón Chico, you’ll have the opportunity to see right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas, penguins, and numerous species of birds and fish. Agustín and María have cameras set up at watering holes throughout the property to study and track what animals live and roam there. Some of the footage we saw included guanacos, armadillos, wild cats, and myriad birds.

We didn’t have to go far to see rheas, like this one who liked to hang around at the lodge eating the flowers.

More elusive were the Patagonian maras, very large rodents with cute donkey-like faces who run like jackrabbits. They were quite shy, but I did manage to get a quick photo.

I confess this place is so magical I even found the tarantulas adorable.

 

One of the highlights of our three days at Rincón Chico was spending an entire morning sitting among the elephant seals on one of the beaches. The seals’ lives are full of drama, and to sit in silence and witness their lives for several uninterrupted hours was amazing.

And, the great thing about having some rainy and windy weather is that the clouds make spectacular sunsets.

At night, Rincón Chico goes completely dark (the generator shuts off at midnight, though there are a few solar-powered lights in the lodge). The silence is complete and almost unreal. It’s incredibly peaceful.

I love this photo of John and me with our incredible hosts, Agustín and María. If you ever want to experience Rincón Chico and Península Valdés, remember that visits to the estancia support the work of Agustín and María to continue the conservation of the property, the science of learning about its creatures, and rewilding former sheep pastures. I certainly hope we’re able to return again very soon!



Penguins & Patagonia: Rainy afternoon happy hour book club

By Midge Raymond,

On the afternoon we arrived at the gorgeous Estancia Rincón Chico on Península Valdés, it was pouring rain, windy, and cold.

So, we decided to have our author talks and book signing that afternoon, with the timing just perfect for cocktail hour.

It was beyond wonderful to talk about My Last Continent with readers who were seeing firsthand parts of what inspired the novel: volunteering at Punta Tombo, learning so much from experienced penguin researchers, being out in the middle of nowhere with no human sounds other than the wind and the braying of the penguins. I read a few excerpts from the book — one scene set in Punta Tombo, which we’d visited the day before, and one scene set in Antarctica, where half of our group would be headed in a few more days.

And John‘s novel The Tourist Trail was even more fun to talk about, as it’s just been released in a new edition, with the sequel on its way into the world in February of 2019. Also, in The Tourist Trail, Punta Tombo features even more prominently than in My Last Continent, so readers got an even better idea of the colony from reading his novel. John read an excerpt from the book that actually retraced our own steps from the day before.

 

We enjoyed a fantastic Argentine Malbec as we chatted about the novels and signed books…

…and we had so much fun we forgot all about the wind and rain.

To see more of Susan’s terrific photos, visit the Facebook page of Adventures by the Book!

 



Penguins & Patagonia: Back at Punta Tombo

By Midge Raymond,

John and I volunteered at Punta Tombo with the University of Washington’s Penguin Project (now the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels) back in 2006. We’d always dreamed of returning to the colony, though we were also a little worried about what we might find. We know that the penguin population is down by 45 percent at Punta Tombo (sadly, it is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world), and that tourism is increasing (to 100,000 visitors a year).

Despite our concerns, our visit was encouraging on so many levels. First, we encountered a brand-new visitor’s center with a gift shop, cafe, and a little museum highlighting the wildlife of the region. While this may not sound like a good thing, it is: Unlike the last time we were here, all the cars and buses now park well outside of the colony, which means no more incidents of penguins being hit by cars, or being unable to return to their nests.

As we walked toward the colony, the first familiar sight was in fact not penguins but guanacos on the hillside. These beautiful llama-like animals live among the penguins and miraculously never seem to crush the penguins’ burrows despite how often they walk right past or over them.

We continued on, past the public restrooms, the older gift shop and cafe, the guardafauna station, and the cueva next to which the trailer we’d slept in used to be parked (the trailer is no longer there). And soon we could see that the tourist trail has been much improved, with new walkways and viewing areas, and it wasn’t packed with visitors as we’d anticipated. We arrived as the penguins were carefully incubating their eggs (the chicks are already starting to hatch, as I write this a week later), and as you can see in this photo, the birds are guarding the eggs carefully.

We got the chance to meet with Ginger Rebstock, one of the longtime researchers at the colony, who caught us up on all the news. Among the news we were most eager to hear: Turbo the penguin returned safely to the colony this season, though he was out at sea the day we were there. We were sorry to have missed seeing him, but are so glad to know he is safe and still returning home, though he does remain a bachelor. Ginger doesn’t believe his chances of finding a mate are good; there are far more females than males at Tombo, which means that a lot of the males will remain bachelors.

Thanks to John Yunker for this photo, below, of a penguin rearranging her nest. As you’ll see, the skin around her eyes is quite pink; this is because it was a warm day, and she’s releasing some body heat through these small, featherless patches of skin around her eyes.

Below is a photo of a little bay where we glimpsed Chubut steamer ducks, endemic to Argentina, sharing this little beach with a raft of penguins. It was a glorious clear, sunny day, ideal for penguin viewing.

 

And I absolutely love this photo that Susan took of this beautiful penguin with My Last Continent. (One thing to note about the tourist trail at the colony is that the penguins are used to humans and they will walk right up to you and will pass within inches of you if you’re standing nearby. The penguins who nest near the tourist trail are used to people; further out in the colony, they are far more skittish around humans since they don’t encounter them as often.)

We didn’t get a photo of The Tourist Trail (named after this very setting), but for a fictional read about this amazing colony, check it out here.

As ever, for more great photos of the tour, visit the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.



Penguins & Patagonia: Puerto Madryn

By Midge Raymond,

After a couple of sunny days in Buenos Aires, the next stop on our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure was the much cooler, windswept oceanside city of Puerto Madryn in Patagonia. The amazing two days we spent here were arranged by Carol Mackie de Passera of Causana Viajes (indeed all the Argentinian details of the trip were arranged by Carol, but our visit to Puerto Madryn was specially and thoughtfully curated by Carol to fit our literary theme). Also a naturalist and guide, Carol arranged for a tour of the local history museum, Museo del Desembarco, followed by a traditional Welsh tea with Argentinian authors in the beautiful historical building of the Welsh Association.

We (below, from left: Marcelo Gavirati, Silvia Iglesias, and Carlos Dante Ferrari — plus me, John, and Susan) had a wonderful chat about writing, culture, travel, and the fascinating Welsh history of Patagonia (the Welsh arrived in Puerto Madryn in the 1860s) and its thriving community here, all as we devoured scones, bread, pastries, and tea.

Carlos Dante Ferrari is the author of eight books, including one translated into English, The Patagonian Rifleman.

Marcelo Gavirati is a professor and has published many books and articles on the history of Patagonia, including this article in True West Magazine, which focuses on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s arrival in Argentina.

Silvia Iglesias is a journalist, teacher, poet, and novelist. She has published two books of poetry — Perfect Bodies and Strange Bodies —  and a novel, Yaoyin.

This next photo features our entire group as well as association staff, all of whom were wonderful and so much fun to spend the afternoon with.

Thanks to Susan for the terrific photos, many more of which can be found on the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.



Penguins & Patagonia: Buenos Aires

By Midge Raymond,

It was more than a year and a half ago that Susan McBeth and I began planning our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure by the Book, and when we found ourselves in Buenos Aires at last, we could hardly believe the trip was finally happening (and a small part of our group would be headed to bigger adventures yet, in Antarctica). But we had three days in beautiful, balmy Buenos Aires first — and we knew the best way to overcome the jet lag after our early morning arrival would be to stay awake, get out in the sun, and walk around. So we headed to one of the city’s biggest treasures: Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur.

This gorgeous ecological reserve comprises 865 acres on the banks of the Río de la Plata. It was only a couple of miles’ walk from our hotel, and once inside the reserve, it was hard to imagine we were still in the middle of a bustling international city, except for a few glimpses through the greenery. The birders among us were especially happy with the myriad species of birds found throughout the reserve.

Of course, the ecological reserve is only one of the city’s many treasures; this being an Adventure by the Book, visiting the gorgeous El Ateneo bookstore was another priority.

Located inside a former theater, this bookstore is a joy to wander through, even if it has only one small English-language section. We posed for a group photo with My Last Continent overlooking the former stage, which is now a cafe.

And no literary tour is complete without an homage to the typewriter — we stopped by this typewriter repair shop, which had a lot of vintage machines for sale. It was a good thing that we had weight limits on our baggage and couldn’t make any purchases, no matter how tempting.

We officially kicked off the Penguins & Patagonia tour with a welcome dinner in the lovely Puerto Madero district, with a gorgeous river view as our backdrop. (Just out of view is Santiago Calatrava’s breathtaking bridge, El Puente de La Mujer, or “Woman’s Bridge.”)

 

Thanks so much to Susan for the great people photos! And, for many more photos and captions from this journey, visit Adventures by the Book on Facebook.



Why elephant seals are awesome

By Midge Raymond,

I adore elephant seals. They are among the most interesting creatures on the planet to watch (and I’ve traveled to a lot of continents to watch a lot of creatures).

For one, they really know how to enjoy life, as you can see in the video I took of this happy girl on a beach on South Georgia Island.

They are also hilariously disgusting, and visiting elephant seals during their molt is an extremely good time to see them at their most appalling. They lie on the beach — gigantic, lazy, grunting beasts who are tumbling all over each other, sometimes fighting, and always bellowing —and you can smell them long before you catch sight of them. Here’s a video of a male calling out to all those near and far…and by the way, the males piled up in this video weigh up to 8,000 pounds and reach 7 feet tall when they rise up to fight one another.

And perhaps my favorite image from my visit to Gold Harbour on South Georgia Island was this one — a skinny, post-molt gentoo penguin appearing to flee the wrath of this elephant seal. (The gentoo was in reality doing no such thing — he was only making his way to the beach — but when it comes to wildlife photography, timing is everything.)

For all of you who are now convinced you must meet these incredible creatures yourself, join me and Adventures by the Book on our Penguins & Patagonia journey this October! We will be meeting the Magellanic penguins featured in My Last Continent (and there’s an optional excursion to Antarctica if you’d also like to meet the gentoos, chinstraps, and Adélies), and we will also have a chance to spend quality time with elephant seals during their mating season. (You can imagine how entertaining that will be.) Click here to learn more about this upcoming adventure.



Meet the Yellow-Eyed Penguin

By Midge Raymond,

When John and I went to the southern tip of New Zealand hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare, endangered yellow-eyed penguin (the Maori name is hoiho), we would’ve been happy for even a brief glimpse. These penguins are not only among the rarest on earth — there are only an estimated 4,000 left in the world — they are also very shy.

Yet our willingness to sit quietly for hours in the cold — and, often, rain — paid off when we were able to witness these gorgeous birds coming ashore to feed their chicks.

Very unfortunately, the penguins are endangered in part because humans ignore the signs around their nesting sites and walk across the paths that the penguins take to reach their nests. If a penguin comes ashore and finds humans in its way, it will return to sea, leaving its chicks hungry.

We spoke at length to a wonderful naturalist who was there on behalf of the Department of Conservation, volunteering his time for hours every night to help ensure the penguins have a safe path to get to their chicks. Nevertheless, we witnessed several occasions on which he asked visitors not to cross the paths, explaining that to do so would endanger the lives of these very rare birds … and then watched as these people went right ahead anyway, disregarding the naturalist’s pleas to help protect the birds. It was astonishing, and more than a little depressing; it would take so little so help save these birds, but many of the tourists couldn’t be bothered.

Upon returning home, we got in touch with the Southland District Council and the South Catlins Charitable Trust to voice our concerns, and we received a warm response back, both sharing our concerns and outlining new initiatives that are being planned to help protect these penguins. Of course, the birds have other threats — among them, fishing, climate change, and ocean pollution — but the good news is that these are things we can all do something about, wherever we may live.

As you can see from these photos, all taken by John, the yellow-eyed penguins are uniquely beautiful, with their yellow eyes and the glowing yellow feathers around them, and they make their homes in the rainforesty scrubs and grasses off the shore, usually walking across tide pools and up steep rock embankments to get to their nests. We do hope to return to this area one day, and we hope to find many more yellow-eyed penguins, instead of fewer.



Bookstore Geek: Dymocks of Australia

By Midge Raymond,

One of the great joys of visiting Australia is running into a Dymocks in every major city.

dymocks

Down under, Dymocks is chain bookstore, with each one independently owned. And thanks to Australia’s enthusiastic reading community, a Dymocks in any given city is always bustling.

When My Last Continent first launched in Australia, I stopped in to the Adelaide location to sign books (with Admiral Byrd, of course).

dymocks-adelaide

In Melbourne, the central business district store is gigantic, an absolutely heavenly place for book lovers, especially those of us from the U.S., where independent bookstores of this size and scope are more rare than ever.

dymocks-melbourne-cbd

Of course, you’ll find not only books but plenty of cards, gifts, and other bookish delights.

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With row after row of bookshelves, filled with international books on every subject, the browsing is excellent.

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In Melbourne, I had a nice large stack of My Last Continent copies to sign.

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And the Dymocks in Sydney’s central business district is equally impressive in size and style.

dymocks-sydney

And it was a delight for Admiral Byrd to find My Last Continent in several places in the store, including Australian Fiction.

dymocks-syd

And Dymocks also provided bookselling at one of my Brisbane Writers Festival events, so I got to meet Dymocks people in every city I went to. All the staff are welcoming, helpful, and passionate about books. When you’re in Australia and see that cheery red-and-white Dymocks sign, prepare yourself to lose a few hours…and enjoy!

bks



Bookstore Geek: Paperback Bookshop in Melbourne, Australia

By Midge Raymond,

The Paperback Bookshop in downtown Melbourne is an indie bookstore that’s been here since the 1960s. (And yes, it does sell hardcover books despite its inception as a paperback-only store.)

paperback-bookshop

The shop is beautiful, very tiny bookstore, open late and perfect for browsing after dinner or drinks. As with most small bookstores, the collection is selectively curated, and this store has a wonderful selection of new fiction as well as travel literature. (If you don’t find what you’re looking for, any book can be special-ordered upon request.)

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I  found gorgeous notecards, many of which came from Australia’s art galleries and local artists, and there’s a great selection of gift wrap as well.

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The Paperback Bookshop only had one copy of My Last Continent, and now it’s a signed copy.

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Bookstore Geek: Hill of Content in Melbourne, Australia

By Midge Raymond,

Hill of Content Bookshop is one of the sweetest and most charming bookstores in Melbourne.

hill-of-content-melbourne

Located right in the central business district, Hill of Content has a gorgeous setting, making you feel as though you’re in a library, with its rich colors and dark-wood bookshelves.

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I signed a few copies of My Last Continent while in for a visit … hoc2

… and Admiral Byrd was of course on hand to assist.

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Don’t neglect to browse the full length of this lovely store when you visit (there’s an excellent selection of travel books, as well as new books and local and international bestsellers) and as ever, make sure you have plenty of time.



The penguins of Patagonia

By Midge Raymond,

So often when people think of penguins, they picture the icy landscape of Antarctica. Yet only four of seventeen penguin species come ashore in Antarctica — while all live in the Southern Hemisphere, most do their breeding in non-icy places, from the little penguins of Australia to the tropical Galápagos penguins, to the Magellanic penguins of South America, who can also be found in the Falklands, like this little guy I saw on Saunders Island this winter (he’s not nearly as agile on the rocks as the local, and very aptly named, rockhopper penguins!).

There are many wonderful places in the world to see penguins, but one of the most breathtaking is in the Chubut Province of Argentina, which features the largest Magellanic colony in the world, with more than 200,000 breeding pairs. These penguins come ashore at Punta Tombo every autumn to build nests, meet or reunite with their mates, and raise their chicks.

Studying and protecting these birds is important for so many reasons — for one, the more we know about penguins, the more we know about the state of our oceans, and the better job we can do taking care of the planet and all its wildlife.

Visit the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels to learn more about the penguins of Patagonia and to support its conservation work. And of course, if you want to visit this colony and see it up close and personal, join me and Adventures by the Book in Argentina in October of 2018!



The yeti crab and other Antarctic discoveries

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”

Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.

I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).

One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.

I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.