Are we alone? It’s a question that has obsessed us for centuries, and now we have the technology to do more than wonder. Scientists on the hunt for distant planets and extraterrestrial intelligence will take us on their expeditions into faraway galaxies and barely visible realms. Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse journeys to the brink of discovery with Jill Tarter, David Charbonneau, and Steven Squyres to contemplate what it would mean to have company in the cosmos.
Sir Paul Nurse is a Nobel Laureate and the President of Rockefeller University, where he continues to do research in cell biology. He is the former Chief Executive of Cancer Research in the United Kingdom. Nurse was knighted in Great Britain for his contributions to cancer research.
David Charbonneau has been called a “celestial detective” for his systematic search for planets orbiting nearby sun-like stars. Uncovering the secrets of these exoplanets, as they’re called, could conceivably lead to the first direct evidence of life beyond Earth. Dr. Charbonneau is developing novel techniques to discover and investigate these distant worlds. In 1999 he used a 4” telescope in a parking lot in Boulder, Colorado, to make the first detection of an exoplanet eclipsing its parent star. He has also used both the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes to uncover more about these potentially habitable planets. A Professor of Astronomy at Harvard, Dr. Charbonneau is also a member of the NASA Kepler Team in the search for planets similar to Earth—specifically, terrestrial planets in their sun’s hospitable zone where liquid water and life might exist—and director of the MEarth Project. His many honors include the 2009 National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman award, the nation’s highest award for scientists under 35 and Discover Magazine’s Scientist of the Year for 2007.
Jill Tarter has devoted her career to hunting for signs of sentient beings elsewhere through a systematic search for radio signals from Earth’s galactic neighbors. She has received wide recognition in the scientific community, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Aerospace, two Public Service Medals from NASA and a 2009 TEDPrize. In 2004, TIME magazine named her one of the TIME 100 most influential people in the world, and she was portrayed by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact. Tarter holds the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and is Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.
Tarter served as Project Scientist for NASA’s SETI program, the High Resolution Microwave Survey, and has conducted numerous observational programs at radio observatories worldwide. Since the termination of funding for SETI in1993, she has served in a leadership role to secure private funding to continue this exploratory science. She also serves on the management board for the Allen Telescope Array, a joint project between the SETI Institute and the UC Berkeley Radio Astronomy Laboratory.
Michael Russell’s research into the emergence of life and early evolution will help determine whether earth alone supports life in our universe. He theorizes that oxygenic photosynthesis, acting upon iron sulfide deposits in volcanic, oceanic vents, allowed the precursors of protein and RNA to form. Dr. Russell’s study of 360-million-year-old mineral deposits in Ireland led to the insight that iron sulphite cells may have provided three-dimensional molds for the first cell walls. His groundbreaking research led to a tour of North America as the Society of Economic Geologists’ distinguished lecturer in 1984. In June 2009, Dr. Russell was awarded the William Smith Medal from the Geological Society of London for his lifetime contribution to applied geology.
Since 2006, Dr. Russell has tested his theory as a NASA Senior Research Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. In addition, a number of ongoing international collaborations have bolstered his original narrative of the hydrothermal origin of life as a result of geological, geochemical and tectonic forces. Russell has been featured on two BBC programs, including Origin of Life and Life on Mars.
Steven W. Squyres is a veteran of several of NASA’s planetary exploration missions, including the Voyager mission to Jupiter and Saturn, the Magellan mission to Venus, and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission. His main areas of scientific study have been the history and distribution of water on Mars and the possible existence and habitability of a liquid water ocean on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.
Dr. Squyres is the Principal Investigator for the science payload on the Mars Exploration Rover Project; he is also a co-investigator on the 2003 Mars Express, 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and 2009 Mars Science Laboratory missions, as well as a member of the Gamma-Ray Spectrometer Flight Investigation Team for the Mars Odyssey mission, and a member of the imaging team for the Cassini mission to Saturn.
The Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, Dr. Squyres has been honored with the American Astronomical Society’s Harold C. Urey Prize, the Space Science Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Astronautical Society’s Carl Sagan Award, the National Space