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Director's Corner: Seeking Out Other Worlds

Jennifer Wiseman

Welcome to the DoSER Director's Corner! Here Jennifer Wiseman shares her reflections on public dialogue at the interface of science, ethics, and religion and how DoSER is working to support constructive exchange and understanding between these communities. 

Seeking Out Other Worlds

Dear DoSER Friends,

One of the most exciting new developments in astronomy is the actual detection of hundreds of planetary systems outside our own solar system, with thousands more candidate systems now up for confirmation. Just a little over two decades ago we weren't even sure if there were any planets outside our solar system. Now, with improving technology and clever techniques, we are finding that planetary systems are statistically common. With this great advance we are now impatient for answers to the big questions that arise: Are there other Earth-like worlds? Life elsewhere?

The search for other worlds will continue at a rapid pace as astronomers utilize data from telescopes like Kepler and from future telescopes that will be better able to analyze the atmospheres of these "exoplanets" for signs of biological activity. But what if we find it? What does this mean for our sense of significance of life on Earth? Or, conversely, what if it seems that a habitable environment for advanced life is rare or unlikely outside of Earth? Many of these philosophical issues have been considered over many centuries, from the ancient Greeks to 12th century Islamic Imam Al-Razi, who argued for the possibility of "a thousand thousand worlds beyond this world...".

What are we finding out about "other worlds" right now, through astronomy and astrobiology? Our recent AAAS - DoSER event "Exoplanets and Life Beyond Earth" drew a packed house as we heard from astrobiologist Stephen Freeland and historian Steven Dick discuss what we are learning about life in extreme environments on our own planet, the search for life elsewhere, and the historical perspective on this exciting human quest.

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