astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger is on the hunt for signs of extraterrestrial life

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But her latest project is no peer-reviewed paper: it’s a pop science book about the search for life.
Alien Earths – at least the UK edition – has a cover of brightly coloured orbs; inside there are cartoonish line drawings and a bookmark with planet stickers, which Kaltenegger mentions delightedly.
I’ve always considered the universe – terrifying, unknowable, probably hostile – none of my business, but reading Alien Earths, several surprising things happened.
Within weeks, my husband, my son and I had were enthusiastically debating the possibility of alien life.
Sagan was a great populariser of cosmic exploration, but what pushed Kaltenegger to follow in his footsteps?
We are living it, and we are explorers.” If, like me, this has passed you by, let me explain, thanks to my newfound Alien Earths confidence.
In Alien Earths, Kaltenegger’s excitement is infectious as she relates how she discovered that the Kepler telescope had detected two potential candidates for life; it’s even more palpable as she talks.
“If life is everywhere and it leaves signs in the atmosphere, then we will find it,” she says.


Lisa Kaltenegger is laughing about the unpleasant experience of teaching astrophysics over Zoom during Covid lockdowns, but she could be speaking about her line of work: attempting to determine whether life exists outside of our solar system. “Staring into the abyss… Am I really reaching anyone out there?”.

The Carl Sagan Institute was established by Kaltenegger in 2015 to look into this. She’s talking to me from the legendary extraterrestrial life researcher’s old office, which she now owns, overlooking the verdant Cornell campus in upstate New York. She’s a bright bundle of energy and contagious enthusiasm on a gloomy day. The institute unites scientists from various fields to determine what signals of extraterrestrial life might resemble from our perspective, enabling us to identify them should we discover any in the future.

At the forefront of extraordinarily difficult science, it’s a big job. Over the course of 20 years, Kaltenegger has published widely, won numerous awards, and worked with NASA. It’s a pop science book about the hunt for life, not a peer-reviewed publication, though, which is her most recent endeavor. The cover of Alien Earths, or at least the UK edition, features vibrantly colored orbs; within are whimsical line drawings and a bookmark featuring planet stickers, which Kaltenegger excitedly mentions. It’s not a children’s book, although younger readers and interested teens will find it fascinating, and some of the ideas are unavoidably complicated, but it is a fun, enlightening introduction to a subject that many people are too afraid to discuss.

That covers me as well. I’ve always thought that the universe is scary, unknown, and most likely hostile, but after reading Alien Earths, a few unexpected things transpired. At first, I started crying because I was so overwhelmed by the universe’s size, age, and mystery. However, once I started to understand the fundamentals, I found myself actively seeking out space-related news articles rather than ignoring them. My spouse, son, and I were fervently discussing the potential of extraterrestrial life within a few weeks. I would have normally completely ignored this type of talk, but Alien Earths has empowered me to think that I can understand the fundamentals of the universe and has piqued my curiosity about learning more.

Though Sagan played a significant role in popularizing cosmic exploration, what motivated Kaltenegger to pursue a similar path? She describes wanting to take a step back and consider the big picture in order to see if there was anything she was missing in her search for life, and she realized that the best way to accomplish this was by “telling a friend”: (a nice description: that’s just how the chatty tone of the book feels). She was eager to convey something, though, that she believes is overlooked by the prevailing pessimism of the time. “This amazing golden age of exploration is upon us. Our perception of the universe is about to shift drastically. As explorers, we are experiencing it firsthand. “.

If, like me, you’ve missed this, allow me to explain with the confidence that comes from knowing that we are aliens. A rocky planet with an atmosphere in the “habitable zone”—that is, not too hot nor too cold—is necessary for life to exist. About 20 billion stars in the Milky Way, or one in five stars, have planets in the habitable zone, but because they are so far away, it is very difficult to learn anything about them. Even finding exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system, involves some educated speculation based on measurements of variations in starlight.

There are currently over 5,000 known exoplanets, with the first one discovered in 1995. When Kaltenegger talks about how the Kepler telescope found two possible candidates for life, it’s obvious that she’s excited about the discovery. This excitement is contagious in Alien Earths. The amount of time we would have to wait for planets that are rocks in the habitable zone was unknown to us. After Kepler discovered them, they discovered two. If they’ve already located two, I thought to myself.

Launched on Christmas Day 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) marked the next significant advancement. According to Kaltenegger, “we have the opportunity to determine what is in the atmosphere of other planets that may be Earths for the first time in history with this large telescope.”. So, we might soon find out if we’re not alone.”. “We shall locate life if it exists everywhere and leaves traces in the atmosphere,” she asserts. The Proxima Centauri system, our nearest neighbor, is one of the contenders she is focusing on. “We are surrounded by a planet that might be another Earth; it is even the star across from us.”. When she talks about how close we might really be, I can’t help but get shivers. “I consider it as though it were a historical text. This history book will eventually be divided into two parts: the prehistoric era, when humanity was not sure if they were alone, and the posthistoric era. We’re hovering right above it. “.

Naturally, a lot of people think we already know, and (despite Pentagon denials) last year’s claims at a Congressional hearing regarding alien craft and “non-human” life have only fueled the fires. “To me, the fascination is based on an excitement and hope that we might not be alone in the cosmos,” says Kaltenegger, addressing the book’s incredibly negative portrayal of UFO sightings (“The subject is full of poor observations”). However, we are now in a whole new era of exploration, one in which we are no longer forced to place all of our hope in fictitious top-secret government programs or phenomena that could be caused by a wide range of circumstances, such as natural weather patterns. Rather, we are now able to read the light fingerprint of other stars by discovering planets orbiting around them. “.

The main focus of Kaltenegger’s work is preparing for potential discoveries made by the JWST. Her team models possible atmospheric compositions of other habitable planets using astrophysics, astronomy, geology, biology, and the understanding of how life on Earth evolved. They “melt rocks,” cultivate microorganisms, and experiment with all the hues of existence. She makes the comment, “I wonder if our imagination can cover even a fraction of the possibilities,” at one point, and I find it interesting how much of her work is creative, imaginative, and speculative. I disagree; that is not how I envisioned astrophysics. “Yes, I do. I believe that this is another factor in the lack of interest in science among many people. At the cutting edge of science, it’s not that way because you have to imagine; it’s an educated guess. Despite what they believe, it’s stifling, rigid, and dry. “.

Casting as wide and varied a net as possible is necessary to arrive at the best educated estimate. That is one of the institute’s tenets. Experts from various fields contribute unique knowledge and perspectives, as do individuals from various backgrounds. Six persons with identical backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities will most likely come up with six different solutions to an issue. You will find more solutions if you can make it more diverse. According to her, “people from everywhere, literally the whole globe” participated in the JWST launch. I believe that sometimes it’s not as evident how these space telescopes need to be activated by a large city or an international village. However, that village is real. “.

Though there have been difficulties along the way, Kaltenegger’s life and philosophy defy the traditional perception of science as “an ivory tower, a white male in a white coat.”. Born into a family of brilliant students, she was discouraged from pursuing science when she was a physics major in engineering school. She laughs that this was only made possible because Graz was small enough for her to bike between campuses. During her time as an undergraduate, she also faced discrimination from “Stone Age” teachers, which she and the other female student encountered on occasion. In Alien Earths, there are stories about men complaining that she only got the job “because I was a woman” and about a hiring committee asking her if she had children (her daughter is proudly depicted in one of the book’s illustrations, she reveals to me). She has generally had positive work experiences—one of her early bosses firmly forbade her from photocopying—but she is also undoubtedly tough. “I made the coffee so bad the first time,” she tells me about her first job. It was a little sneaky, but it was hilarious how they were like, “Oh, you know what, you don’t have to.”. “.

Speaking of coffee, it appears so frequently in Alien Earths that it almost functions as a character unto itself. According to Kaltenegger, “two really good espresso machines” were one of the most crucial purchases made when the institute was first established. Although she genuinely enjoys coffee, the main goal was to foster communication. When the coffee is excellent, people will gather and discuss their activities. And there are always cookies and dark chocolate in my workplace; food is never in doubt. “.

Not just because Kaltenegger provides snacks and talks about impostor syndrome to her students in passing (“I know you’re good enough”), but also because she must be an amazing teacher. I really appreciate you! Please return to my office if you have any questions. “With imagery, she makes difficult ideas and figures too big for me to understand understandable for everyone in Alien Earths. Our closest planet neighbor, for example, is located approximately 9,000 cookies (four football fields) away, if our solar system were a cookie. The expansion of the universe after the big bang is like “raisins in raisin-bread dough,” and she poses a thought experiment where readers are asked to consider whether a banana is extraterrestrial. She also compares our understanding of the cosmos to that of a piece of pepperoni on a pizza, asking them to imagine the shape of the entire pizza while still enjoying their snacks. Her wish to include us in the “amazing ride we’ve all been on” and are currently on strikes us as being incredibly kind.

It’s quite poetic how frequently she compares movement in the universe to a dance, I think. “I went to dance school actually because I’m Austrian,” she chuckles, focusing on her Latin studies. Gravity is essentially a dance of give and take, so this kind of changed the way I thought about it. It’s funny how my perception has been shaped by something I did a long time ago, which is still dancing. You want your team to be as diverse as possible because you never know who will actually contribute the idea that could make the problem go away. “.

Kaltenegger is hopeful that we will soon have enough answers to those issues to turn that imagined history book from the first to the second half. She is content knowing that her work “will allow somebody to do it in the future,” even if life turns out to be elusive and obtaining an answer is more difficult and takes longer than expected. The collaborative and interconnected nature of the search for life, “not just globally, but through time,” was crucial to convey in the book. Thoughts continue to influence our actions and perceptions even after they have passed. She says, “On bad days, I picture a future cosmonaut on their first mission.”. As a keepsake, they have this really old, quirky star map. Furthermore, I created the first few dots. “.

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