"Are we alone in the universe?" Find out this weekend!

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Image courtesy of The Adler Planetarium and The Kavli Foundation.

We have entered an exciting time in the field of astronomy — and, indeed, in the history of humankind. Every week, it seems, we read new announcements increasing the number of known extrasolar planets circling other stars. And as our instruments and observing techniques allow us to probe ever-smaller ranges of mass and size, we’re now discovering planets that could potentially provide suitable environments for life — Earth-like and otherwise.

Which, of course, begs the question: “Are we alone in the universe?” 

This Friday and Saturday, November 3 and 4, the latest installment of the Adler Planetarium’s Kavli Fulldome Lecture Series will tackle that question. Dr. Lisa Kaltenegger is the director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University; this week she will speak about the missions and techniques astronomers employ to learn more about extrasolar planets, including whether they might host life and how we could detect it. Friday’s lecture will run from 7:30-9:00 P.M. (Central time) and includes a Q&A session; Saturday’s lecture is 12-1 P.M. And regardless of where in the world you’re sitting as you read this, you can tune in live via Youtube to watch.

While relegated to the stuff of science-fiction in the past, the search for extraterrestrial life is science fact these days, as we not only find places where life might thrive elsewhere in our own solar system, but continue to discover planets circling stars throughout our galaxy. Dr. Kaltenegger is an excellent speaker for this topic — she is engaged in research as an associate professor at Cornell that focuses on exoplanets and the search for signs of extraterrestrial life. She has been named an innovator to watch and an excellent role model for women in science, in addition to receiving awards such as the 2012 Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize for Physics.

If the word “lecture” drums up images of sitting at an uncomfortable desk taking notes from a chalkboard or PowerPoint, think again. Adler’s Kavli Fulldome Lectures take advantage of the amazing visualization technology available at the planetarium to project not only data, but animated models, simulations, and more onto the planetarium’s dome. The lecture itself becomes an immersive, all-encompassing experience that will leave you feeling like a part of every discovery, rather than an external observer.

I can certainly vouch for this — I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Grainger Sky Theater where the lecture will take place, and what I saw simply blew me away. The images the theater is capable of producing are so crisp, detailed, and huge that when I say immersive, I mean it!

An icy exoplanet circles a distant star. Is this the type of place where we might find life? // ESO

How can you attend? That’s easy, and you don't even have to live near Chicago. All you need is an internet connection and, if you’ve got it, a virtual reality viewing device, such as Google Cardboard. The Kavli Fulldome Lecture will be streamed live via YouTube 360 on the Adler Planetarium’s YouTube channel. As you watch, you’ll be joined by viewers across the country and around the world, such as patients at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and participants in the Travelling Telescope program in Nairobi, Kenya. As part of their public outreach initiative, the Adler Planetarium generously donated Google Cardboard viewing devices to patients at the hospital in 2016 and 2017, as well as smartphones and viewers to Travelling Telescope in 2016.

If you do happen to live near the Chicago area, the Adler Planetarium (1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago) still has tickets available for the November 4 lecture at 12 P.M. Tickets are $17 and include General Admission, or $5 for planetarium members, students, and Friends of the Webster Institute. You can purchase tickets for find more information about Saturday’s lecture here.

Alternatively, you might live near a partner viewing location, which in the United States include the Pacific Science Center’s Willard Smith Planetarium in Seattle, Washington, the Museum of Discovery’s OtterBox Digital Dome Theater in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Planetarium in Moorhead, Minnesota. You can check out the full map of partner viewing locations below:

Adler’s Kavli Fulldome Lecture Series has been bringing groundbreaking research in astrophysics to the public since 2015, thanks to additional support from The Kavli Foundation. I highly recommend tuning in via YouTube or traveling to a local museum or planetarium to catch the talk and see for yourself via the Adler’s stunning visuals just how we might finally answer that burning question, “Are we alone?”

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