Lucianne Walkowicz

Astronomer, Adler Planetarium

This conversation is closed.

LIVE chat with Lucianne Walkowicz on extrasolar planets and how that affects life on Earth, September 15, 1-3pm EDT.

Join us for a LIVE conversation with astronomer, extrasolar planet hunter, and TED speaker Lucianne Walkowicz.

The conversation will open at 1PM EDT, September 15th, 2011.

We'll start with the question:

"How does the exploration of our universe, in particular the search for planets like our own, inform our everyday existence here on Earth?"

Closing Statement from Lucianne Walkowicz

Thanks so much for joining me today, everyone! As I've said, learning about the universe beyond Earth really makes me appreciate the world we have here, right under our own feet. I think astronomy has the potential to unite us all, as we're all under the same sky and sharing in these discoveries. I encourage you all to keep listening for news both from Kepler and other teams-- the near future promises even more exciting finds, so stay tuned!

  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: The search for extrasolar Earth-like planets carries two main implications: 1) The prospect of human migration and 2) the possibility of intelligent, extraterrestrial life. With regard to the former, the main takeaway so far seems to be the rarity and preciousness of our world and the vast distances separating us from other habitable planets; so we had better take care of this one. For the time being, we have a moral obligation to assume that we, as a a self-aware embodiment of the universe, are alone in our responsibility to further its development.

    If we do discover that we are not the only intelligent life forms in the universe (and I believe that we eventually will), it will inform our perception of the universe's continual self-organization and reaffirm our sense of being a stepping stone along that path. The search for planets and life forms similar to our own and ourselves should renew our moral obligation to survive and to design our own future.

    We get to decide what the universe-as-us will become next. We need to take that role seriously and to learn as much as we can about other worlds and possibly life forms that are helping to carry this responsibility.
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: Here's the word on Kepler's newest discovery, a planet orbiting not one but TWO stars! It's not exactly Tatooine, but it's close :)
    http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/news/releases/2011/11-69AR.html
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: Hi Lucianne - great question! I think the search for planets like ours does have an interesting impact on our everyday existence for a couple of different reasons. First, every time the discovery of a new "earth-like" planet happens, people like me get really excited...and then I remember that I won't be alive by the time we are able to verify this type of thing by actually travelling there :). But kidding aside, I love to think about the possibilities, so please do keep the discoveries coming!

    The second thing I see happening when new planets are announced is of course the possibility of there being life elsewhere in the galaxy - for me personally, I am certain there is life out there, so it gets me really excited to think about it, but then there is also that moment of what are the actual implications of there being life elsewhere, what does that say about us, how do we fit in to this, etc.? Hope that makes sense!

    I definitely do react every time another planet is found, and thinking about all of the possibilities is a fun exercise (my husband likes thinking about it too, so great conversations always ensue). The work you do really fires the imagination, and with so many people on earth focusing on the daily problems of our planet, it seems like space is often ignored in favour of what is happening in the present closer to home. It is a breath of fresh air to know there are people out there with a larger vision who are actually doing research that could impact the long-term viability of our species - keep up the great work!!
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: Hi Genevieve! I'm glad you find our work inspiring-- I know I do!

      The image that always springs to my mind is one of a fish tank or terrarium-- we're slowly gaining an awareness that our world is but a small corner of a much larger space (hope THAT makes sense!). I would hope that an increased awareness of worlds outside our own would give us a greater feeling of being "in it together" instead of focusing on our differences.
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: I was actually wondering the same. Would the knowledge that there are other Earths out there change the way we treat our planet? if we jump (far) ahead to an age where we become a space-faring species, would we actually have grown in wisdom and try and preserve our resources, or on the contrary, having discovered there is an abundance of it around us, jump from rock to rock to harvest it. I have seen studies about capturing asteroids in Earth orbit to mine them! So this idea isn't actually so far fetched. Should our space environment be a "universal park" ? Or should some places be opened for mining and other such activities?
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: I've wondered about this too! What are the moral issues associated with terraforming a planet? Do we have a right to go turn Mars into whatever we want it to be? I'm not really sure what the answer is-- in a sense, yes, the solar system is a "natural space", even if we can't breathe in most of it :)
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: I think the discovery of other life Earth-like planets, especially the discovery of lots of them, could possibly have an adverse affect on the way we view our planet.

          If it is true that there are literally millions and millions of planets which are capable of supporting life, we may view each planet with a lesser degree of respect or 'specialness', especially by those who want to command and conquer.

          Planetary ethics are certainly something to think about.
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: Well I think that depends on our ability to go there-- if there are other Earths but we can't reach them, then we're still pretty precious!
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: I love the fish tank analogy Lucianne! I hear what you are saying about being "in it together" - my husband and I have often speculated that the only thing that could suddenly bring us together as a species (i.e. end conflicts, etc.) would actually be the discovery of a totally different species of intelligent life, suddenly we would have a new "them" :). I am not really as cynical as I sound though, and like other contributors to this conversation, I have high hopes that our species will move past some of our current issues and embrace the idea of being part of something much bigger than we are.
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: Did you see Paul Krugman's comments the other day? He essentially said the economic downturn would end the minute we discovered aliens were invading (actually, he implied the government should fake such a thing!).
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: I think the discovery of simple life-forms would be well received by the majority of communities around the globe, but I'm unsure that the discovery of intelligent and highly complex life would be met in the same manner.

    I think humans have long believed they are in some way unique or hold a 'special' place within our Universe, so the discovery of other life forms would put us firmly in our place. Personally, I think the biggest challenge many cultures will face is a conflict with religious ideologies.
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: I agree-- as in the time of Galileo, I think we'll see an ongoing shift in the way people think about religious ideology. Many of the world's major religions are pretty Earth-centric!
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: I was *just* talking about this last night! how religious metaphpors are becoming outdated with our increasing understanding of the universe and how we function within it. that morality and humanity itself will shift and adapt to encompass an entire 'human kind' rather than us vs. them in the next thousand or so years. main attribution to joseph campbell.
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: I would be amazed to see how other life-forms view the Universe. It would be interesting to find out if other intelligent beings ponder the same religious questions most of us ask ourselves here on Earth. I am inclined to believe they do, but perhaps religious pondering is uniquely anthropogenic?.
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: That's a really interesting question! I would guess that if we came into contact with other intelligent life, there'd be something of a "selection effect" in that aliens curious enough to also explore the universe would naturally be given to pondering their existence, whether they ascribed it to a godlike figure or not.
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: I think their life-cycle will determine how much they ponder. We think about the after-life only because we die within 100 years (more or less). I think all other religious ponderings stem from our mortality.
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: Great point, Erin-- but I do think that some of our pondering of our origins is innate curiosity, not necessarily linked to our futures (after life or otherwise!).
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: Religions have proved to be very good at adapting, I'm sure they could manage this (massive) leap and include the Universe in their definition, once they've accepted that aliens have a soul, that is :p.
  • Sep 15 2011: If the universe is expanding away at great speed, and we cannot reach light speed to travel, how could we ever possibly reach distant planets beyond millennial timescale?
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: That promises fascinating and inflamed debates between future ethicists, environmental activists, governments, corporations, etc.! I'm afraid a day will come when we just abandon our good old Earth and scavenge what we can where we can. I hope humanity wakes up before we have to start making WALL-Es to clean up our mess while we wait in space :)
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: noooooo only 9 minutes left :( Lucianne, I miss your metaphors, insight and passion already! Can't wait til you host another! How would we be notified other than facebook?
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: First of all thank you for organising this Lucianne! It's a great privilege for us to be able to interact with scientists on their topics.
    I'll start by answering your first question.
    Even though we're slowly getting closer to establishing a list of planets in the goldilocks zone that can harbour life -based on our models. However, I'm afraid we're stopping short of really "proving" there is life out there, and that skeptics will always point at this fact.
    I believe -personally- that the time we are living now is an exceptional one, and I do believe this search for planets like ours is a truly exciting adventure, and a real paradigm shifter in terms of philosophy, religion, sociology, and so many other fields! Proving that we're not a special planet in a special system is essential, and CoRoT, Kepler, and HARPS help do just this :). And this quest is for me enough reason to pour more resources in the field to develop the means to characterize precisely atmospheres of other planets, the sooner the better!
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: Well, we're not really "stopping short" of proving that life is there-- that's the next goal, to be sure! We don't have the tools to be able to detect life yet, but I think we're capable of building them and doing exactly that.

      I definitely agree that this is a very exciting time for astronomy and humanity alike!
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: A very positive view :) So you believe we will be able to achieve instruments that positively identify specific chemicals in other atmospheres? That would be an incredible achievement for sure! I also wonder at the capability to detect potential rocky moons orbiting the many gaseous giants we know of
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: Yes, there are several designs for missions that will be able to characterize planetary atmospheres-- we can actually already do this for big gas planets now from the ground (though of course we don't expect those to support life). Of course the challenge is funding-- these are complex missions and they need to be based in space to do that work, which is expensive.
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: Hey everybody, the media briefing on our new discovery will begin in a few minutes on NASA TV! You can watch it live here: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html
  • Sep 15 2011: In regards to the sheer amount of Goldilocks zones; permissible planetary orbits, oceans, plate tectonics, oxygen content, heat content, tilt of axis, stabilizing satellites, etc etc

    Is there any correlation between the more you learn, and the more pessimistic you become at our chance of ever discovering life other than our own in the milky way?
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: The more we learn about life, Dan, the more we find that it is tenacious and creative! The more I learn, the more optimistic I become about the possibility of discovering life in the universe.
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: Perhaps life would take on other forms... At present we only have evidence of carbon based life, but who's to say that that's all that exists out there.
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: that's true! We focus a lot on life that is like the kinds we find here on Earth because we stand the best chance of detecting it remotely (because we can recognize its signatures), but there may be others out there too.
  • Sep 15 2011: Tell me Lucianne do you agree that is was lightening or some sort of electrical charge that has effect the surface of Mars to what we see it as today? Also curious on your thoughts about Elenin (sp?) and it's affects on the planet as well as NASA's tracking of major earthquakes they believe are in direct correlation to Elenin's planetary alignment
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: what is the biggest challenge for interstellar travel right now?
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: The distances between the stars, combined with the difficulty of actually propelling our rockets fast! It's so far to even the closest star that even if we sent a probe there now, everyone alive today would be long gone by the time it got there. To give you some idea of how fast spacecraft go, Voyager was a mission launched in the 70's that *just* left the solar system this past year! The fact that it takes so long to get anywhere means also that it'd be a particular challenge for humans to travel between the stars.

      There has been some recent talk about sending a probe out to the nearest star system, even knowing it won't return any news for a hundred years-- it'd be something of a long-view investment in our space program. Unfortunately it's pretty hard to justify something like that when people know they won't see results in their lifetimes.
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: there was a quote from the series 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book one Game of Thrones where Twyin Lannister was giving insight about what continues when we die, how it will only be the Lannister name that continues on once they are all dead and buried. Do you think there is anything that could motivate a global consciousness to care enough about propegating our species simply for the sake of keeping humankind alive even if we wont see the results?
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: do you think any of the potential extrasolar planets could be cultivated to allow things like the H2O molecule to thrive and establish new building blocks there? even if they are void of O2?
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: Erin, are you asking about terraforming planets so that they're more like Earth? I think that's definitely a possibility-- after our, own Earth didn't have an oxygen-rich atmosphere until the rise of cyanobacteria, who modified the atmosphere and changed thing forever. I could imagine maybe using a bioengineering approach to help ameliorate otherwise inhospitable worlds. Certainly lots of sci fi writers have imagined similar things!
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: It should enlighten us about the need for sustainability as we will undoubtedly search for planets that have resources we can survive on - thus highlighting the value of our resources here on Earth.
    I also agree with Ayazs point in that it will lead to us questioning the possibilities of our own evolution.
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: Definitely! As the saying goes, "good planets are hard to find". Because interstellar travel is still such a technological challenge, it's pretty unlikely that we'll be able to mine other planets outside our own solar system for resources-- and even in our solar system, we have the lion's share of stuff like water. It really highlights the value of the resources we have here.
      • thumb
        Sep 15 2011: What's the chance of us even being able to mine objects inside the Solar System?
        • thumb
          Sep 15 2011: Well, I think the technology to land on an asteroid has been around for a while-- there have been various missions with that sort of thing in mind, although ultimately they've all ended up being canceled. Many of those missions have wanted to do what we call "sample return", where we scoop up some material and then send it back to Earth. That's a small step to actually mining, but it's the same idea on a small scale.
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: To me, it puts the focus on how small our world is. There's a spectacular difference between knowing that there are billions of galaxies out there, and knowing that there's (or might be) another Earth-like planet.
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: I agree! For me it also resonates with our appreciation of the environment as well. It's such a challenge to even find another planet the *size* of Earth, let alone one that is really like our Earth-- and an even greater challenge to ever go there. It really makes one appreciate the natural beauty of our own planet and the importance of preserving this precious place.
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: Well, I had more been thinking of "exploration" in the non-physical sense, but you're right that many challenges await us as we turn our sights to actually sending humans into the beyond. Just yesterday, NASA announced a major step in that direction-- the new Space Launch System that will help send mankind beyond Earth and the Moon. Check it out here:
    http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/sls1.html
  • thumb
    Sep 15 2011: I think the exploration of the universe reflects our own need to constantly connect and strive to understand what's going on with the world around us, not just in our own backyard, but on a global scale.

    When exploring our universe have you notice anything interesting or peculiar that has changed the way you perceive or view the world Lucianne?
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: I'd say being an astronomer has given me an additional layer of depth in how I experience everyday things. Like anyone, I can appreciate a sunny day-- but because I also spend much of my time thinking about things like sunspots and solar flares, I think about the fact that our sun isn't just a glowing, static orb, but is instead a dynamic object!
  • Sep 15 2011: Well Searching For The Answer For Human Existense Is Still Anonmymous Though..........
    But Relatively Searching For Planets Across The Universe Like Mars(The Current Mission) Although Provide Some Info About Us And How All These Planets And Rather How We Evolved!!! The Data Is Very Much Useful For Answering Many Questions!!!!
  • Sep 15 2011: meanwhile as the other alternatives of place for living is still far and expensive. It must increase the cost of not-being sustainable and green in fast development.
  • Sep 15 2011: it is just like encounters of different Cultures. How US met middle east and how china deals with the world!! there are lots of conflicts.
    • thumb
      Sep 15 2011: sort of ... the thing is, those cultures have had a lot of time and exposure to each other. i think that encountering something new entirely would not produce the same relationships as countries in close proximity.