by Kendra Hovey
Congratulations (x 2) to Scott Gaudi. The 2013 TEDxColumbus lead-off speaker was recently appointed JPL Distinguished Visiting Scientist and, not a month later, he was named the Thomas Jefferson Chair for Discovery and Space Exploration at Ohio State. Illustrious honors, both, but what does it all mean for the Distinguished-Visiting-Scientist–Discovery-and-Space-Exploration-Chair–Professor-of-Astronomy?
More stargazing, for one. Or, to be precise, planet hunting and, even better, planet finding.
Gaudi will also be developing future planet hunts, as well as future planet hunters. At JPL, he’ll be working with NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) to “get the full science” out of their current and past space-based missions, as well as set priorities for future missions. Luckily for his students here, he’ll be able to do most of this close to home, visiting JPL HQ in California in short stints throughout his two-year appointment. The Jefferson Chair, and the anonymously donated endowment that comes with it, will also support and expand his space exploration efforts, and it will enable him to better train and develop the next generation of Ohio State astronomy students, “some of whom,” he says, “will go on to find new planets of their own.”
The planets Gaudi is looking for are called exoplanets, meaning they are outside our solar system. He’s found nearly a dozen already, including two since his TEDxTalk and a potential third, which, if it passes planet muster, might be his most exciting find yet. And what makes one planet more exciting than another? In this case, it’s the temperature. If it is a planet, it will be the hottest, “as hot as a low mass star,” says Gaudi with hopeful enthusiasm. It’ll also be the ninth planet found with the KELT Survey, which was developed with his former graduate student Thomas Beatty (now at Penn State) and is an acronym for Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope.
If you’re wondering how they know where to point this extremely little telescope…well, they don’t. As Gaudi explains, “it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, except there are a lot of things that look like needles but aren’t.” It’s laborious work, but for Gaudi the work is a privilege. As he says, “You have to take a step back and say, I just discovered a planet that no one else knew existed, that’s pretty cool, and then occasionally you find something that is not only a new planet but it’s a kind of planet no one even thought could exist or imagined could exist, that’s where things get exciting.” And, of course, there’s the science: “Those systems,” he adds, “inevitably tell us something new about the universe we didn’t expect.”
This is what’s fun about talking to Scott Gaudi about his job: He’s articulate and energetic the way a person is when they are doing exactly what they want to be doing, but also, he’s more than tolerant of a dilettante’s giddy fascination with space, he’s just as fascinated and has the potential, one suspects, to be just as giddy.
Take JPL, for instance: Gaudi can tell you it stands for Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s the workplace of 5,000 or so scientists and engineers and it’s primary focus is space exploration. Or, he says, think of it this way: it’s NASA, and all that represents—a place where Voyager actually gets built, where discoveries and exploration actually happen. From mission launches, building new technologies, studying phenomenon in the sky, human space flight, the nitty-gritty work of soldering wires and hard core calculations to dreaming big dreams, JPL is “everything space exploration.”
For fun, you might like to visit jpl.nasa.gov. Like many websites, it has a mission tab, but, of course, JPL’s is literal: Kepler, Magellan, Mars Orbiter, Voyager 1 and 2. More than 100 missions, each with a description, a launch date and a target, some targets are specific—solar wind, asteroid Vesta, Mars—and others are more general: The Universe, for instance.
For Gaudi, both appointments are an honor, an opportunity and also the next logical step in his career. But he feels strongly aware of how lucky he is to be alive at this time of technological advances and to be able to make whatever small progress he can towards answering big questions about the universe. “These answers are not out of reach,” he says, “nor are they only for certain people.” He hopes this is an inspiration to others. “Everyone can contribute to exploration,” he says.
For any reporter, “dumb questions” are a tool of the trade, used to bypass preconceptions and misconceptions, plus, they yield the best quotes. But some of the questions that came to mind for Scott Gaudi I feared were downright idiotic. But, as it turns out, he’s cool with Star Trek references. So one of those dumb question was: We’re looking for life as we know it on earth, are we looking for life as we don’t know it? Or in Star Trek shorthand: If a planet were inhabited by hortas, would we even know?
Gaudi’s answer: “It’s hard, right? The classic example is if I ask you to describe a dog you could probably do it, if I asked you to describe a not-dog, what would you say? We can imagine alternate forms of life, we can write down requirements for what life means—though even defining life is difficult—but silicon-based life…life that uses ammonia as a solvent instead of water…I think the first step is to try to imagine if that life is even plausible, and researchers here are trying to do that. It’s important to keep our minds open and it’s not that we don’t understand that life might be very, very different than what it is on earth, it’s just that if we want to make any progress we have to have a specific goal in mind. So, for instance, Europa, Jupiter’s moon, shows evidence of an underground ocean, so we’ll likely look there for some form of bacterial life.”
Lastly, I asked: While he’s excited to find other life, there are people who fear such a discovery and its unknown consequences. Does he understand this fear? Or in any way share it?
“The idea that life arose elsewhere gives a profound meaning to the question of Why are we here? Even if it’s microbes, we are not alone,” he says. “The universe is so rich. If we do find life in the next few years, it certainly means that life is abundant, and if life is abundant, doesn’t it just make the universe a much more interesting place? I can’t imagine being afraid of discovery of any kind. Certainly not discovery of life.”
Photo Credits: “Artist’s impression of exoplanets everywhere,” ESO M. Kornmesser, creative commons; “Artist illlustration of HAT-P-11b passing in front of its star,” NASA/JPL-Caltech