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LISA KALTENEGGER: When you look up at the sky, you see thousands of stars. All these stars are other suns, and we're finding the first planets around those. My field of study is astrophysics, but really what I'm passionate about is is there life in the universe, and what's going to be the future of our own earth? For the first time in human history, we have the technology to search, and it's there to find it.
I came here to build an interdisciplinary institute. That means you find people and professors from all different departments, to take a biologist, a chemist, somebody who does stars, somebody who builds satellites to look at planets far, far away. Take all of them together and use their knowledge from so many different fields to understand or to ask how does a planet that's habitable work?
What we did here at the Carl Sagan Institute, we took the information of 137 different kinds of living organisms, and see how they would reflect light. How they reflect light also means that if you have a planet covered with them, the sun shines onto them, the light reflects. As an observer, I can see whether the planet is completely red, green, or whatever.
It was a big scientific discovery, there was a big paper, and a lot of journalists actually called, among them The New Yorker,. Because this idea that you could have a color catalog of life, that's something that's very accessible. It was great because it reached a lot of people, other scientists, but also the general public.
I engage with journalists whether it's a story that they write online or whether it's a TV production company. I'm happy to show people how science actually connects to their own life. Because you ask people to fund this research, you ask people to trust you. A lot of time science gets portrayed as this really unapproachable subject and it's really not. Science is the backbone of our society, and I think getting the story out why it's exciting and relevant is part of the really important job of being a scientist nowadays.
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For the first time in human history, we have the technology to search for life and, if it’s there, to find it. Lisa Kaltenegger, professor of astronomy and director of the Carl Sagan Institute, shares what inspires her scientific curiosity, and how Cornell’s scientists work together to search for alien life in a new—and colorful—way. Kaltenegger's research focuses on the characterization of habitable worlds.