Interdisciplinary Honors Seminars

Extraterrestrial Life

Extraterrestrial Life


Index# 10023

Professor Andrew Baker

M/W 4:30-5:50

HC S120

Will NOT Count Towards SAS – Physics & Astronomy MAJOR
Will NOT Count Towards SAS – Physics & Astronomy MINOR

For centuries, humans have looked at the night sky and wondered whether we are alone, or whether we share the universe with advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. In recent years, this question has begun to move from the realm of speculation to the arena of scientific inquiry, thanks to new discoveries about planets orbiting stars other than our Sun, about potential habitats for life in our solar system, and about the possible development of life in extreme environments on the Earth.

This seminar will examine the prospects for the emergence of extraterrestrial life (intelligent or otherwise) and our detection of it, all from a scientific perspective. Specific questions to be addressed include:

  • How, and how rapidly, does interstellar gas turn into stars within the Milky Way?
  • How do young stars’ planetary systems form and evolve, and how do we find planets around stars other than our Sun?
  • What exactly is life, and what properties (composition, temperature, location within the Milky Way, etc.) make a planet favorable for its emergence?
  • What inferences about the development of life on other planets can we draw from studying the history and diversity of life on the Earth?
  • What factors govern the development of biological intelligence, and the rise and long- term survival of a technologically advanced civilization?
  • What are the prospects for finding life (or its remains) elsewhere in our solar system?
  • What are the prospects for finding life on worlds outside our solar system, and for communicating with or visiting advanced extraterrestrial civilizations?

About Professor Baker

My research focuses on the use of radio, millimeter, and submillimeter observations of interstellar matter to probe how galaxy evolution unfolds in the nearby and distant universe. Particular interests include the properties of dusty star-forming galaxies — e.g., low-zultraluminous infrared galaxies (ULIRGs), and high-z submillimeter galaxies (SMGs) like those seen by the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) — and the growth of stellar disks and central black holes in nearby, normal galaxies. I am also interested in the cosmic evolution of neutral atomic hydrogen, which I will be studying out to z = 1.4 with South Africa's new MeerKAT interferometer in the context of the 3424-hour LADUMA survey. LADUMA's status as one of the three top-ranked MeerKAT Large Survey Projects was reconfirmed in June 2017 by an international review panel.