Sunday, October 16, 2005

Quest for Other Worlds and Prospects for Life

I attended the 3rd Cosmic Frontiers lecture last Friday -- a series of University of Toronto lectures celebrating a century of Astronomy at the university. This lecture was by Professor Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, and was titled, Quest for Other Worlds and Prospects for Life. The full abstract as provided by UofT, describes the talk as follows:
After a century of searching, the first planets outside our solar system were discovered 10 years ago. With a census of more than 150, these new worlds offer us some surprising insights into our own solar system. In this lecture, you'll learn:
  1. how these extrasolar planets were discovered
  2. whether astronomers now think that all stars host planetary systems
  3. how these other solar systems compare with our own
  4. about the implications for the existence of life in the galaxy
Most of the known extrasolar planets are similar to Jupiter and Saturn, the big planets in our solar system. But, the race to discover Earthlike planets is now in full swing and it is likely that terrestrial worlds will be discovered in the next decade. This talk will set the stage for these coming attractions!

Fischer's lecture was, as were the others of the series, directed towards the general audience -- for me however, there was a little less science, and a more generalization. Her entire lecture leaned heavily on pretty pictures -- which isn't entirely a bad thing -- pretty pictures are cool -- what was missing for me however, was exactly what it was we were looking at. She did identify what she showed, but didn't elaborate on really what they were. I guess I was looking for a little more Astronomy. Overall however, her lecture wasn't too bad. She's a clear and easy to understand speaker, and she did bring a lot of things down to the layperson level.

Fischer first set the context for her lecture by telling her audience a little about our own solar system. Then, the discoverer of the first multi-planet system other than our own, went on to tell of the findings of planetary systems around other stars that are not too different from our own. It's amazing what can be accomplished with a few photons that have travelled for millions of years through space.

From establishing that our solar system isn't alone anyone, Fischer went down the road of speculation to chat up her audience on the possibility of life elsewhere. She spoke of the Drake equation -- which arose from the SETI program. The equation is an attempt to quantify the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Fischer also expressed hope that the new Allen Telescope Array, which will be studying huge swathes of the sky using radio waves, while simultaneously doing SETI research, will bring in data that may add clarity to question: Is anyone out there?

Finally, Fischer took on the biggest critic to those speculating on extraterrestrial life: those who support the rare Earth hypothesis -- which states that the conditions for creating life on Earth are so rare, that the chances of it occurring elsewhere is therefore very slim. Suggesting that we're probably alone in the universe and should get use to it. Fischer looked at the criteria the rare Earth believers use and took them apart one-by-one. She's definitely a believer in us not being alone. I think most Astronomers and their ilk have to be that way -- after all, what's the use spending so much time looking out there if you don't buy the possibility that there might be something out there staring back? As Fischer said, "We're here. And one data point is better than none." Maybe us being here is all the proof we'll ever get -- and that wouldn't be so bad.

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