March 4, 2024

Taylor Daily Press

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Venus is a strange place for life.  However, I do not rule it out.

Venus is a strange place for life. However, I do not rule it out.

Astrophysicist and planetary scientist Sarah Seager has dedicated her career to finding extraterrestrial life. In this endeavor, people will go further than we ever thought possible. Science fiction is slowly turning into The truth of science.

George Vanhill

When Sarah Seeger speaks, the conversation quickly moves beyond the confines of the concrete environment. Away from the table top, coffee cups and waiters saying “sparkling or flat?” questions, toward the far worlds where much of her career takes place. Worlds orbiting a star other than the Sun: the exoplanets. They are so deeply embedded in the universe that it is unlikely that any human being alive today would ever visit them.

What can these very distant worlds offer us?

“Expedition. It’s sci-fi that’s slowly turning into The truth of science. People want to know what’s out there and who’s there. Everyone wants to meet a foreigner at some point.”

In science fiction we can do that and we can also travel to those faraway places. Is this your inspiration?

Absolutely. There’s a good movie about this Passengers. In it, the main characters are frozen, so they can still travel that great distance. or Interstellar, where a wormhole is used for the same purpose. Movies like this give an idea of ​​how things might work in the distant future.

“Look, there’s a line between mainstream research and research that’s considered crazy. What I want to do with my work is shift those boundaries. As scientists, we don’t like to speculate. I’m not going to tell you here, ‘In the future, your frozen body might move to another planet.’ But I can I assure you that by changing those borders, we are preparing for such an opportunity.”

Do you think we will discover extraterrestrial life during your career?

“I have to answer yes, or else I wouldn’t get out of bed every day and work hard. But the honest answer is: maybe. In our solar system alone, we have multiple options. Something might be up under the surface of Mars, on icy moons like Europa and Enceladus, And I became increasingly convinced that life is possible on Venus.

“Right now, we are still in a kind of naive-hopeful phase. Because if we find extraterrestrial life, it will turn everything upside down.”

Wouldn’t it be the case that many people shrug their shoulders and go about their business, especially when it comes to discovering a cosmic lichen somewhere far away?

“It’s certainly possible. With exoplanets, we might detect a speck of dust in the atmosphere that could indicate the presence of life. We call that a biomarker. There will be people who don’t believe it, even within the scientific world. They will argue. And this skeptical generation will. “It slowly ages and dies, and then there will be a new generation that will gather better evidence. Hopefully, at some point, a generation will be born for which life elsewhere in the universe would be very common.”

You yourself posted in 2020 about the discovery of phosphine, such a biomarker, much closer, on our neighboring planet Venus.

“I was already researching phosphine as a biomarker and then I came across Jane Graves. She was looking for phosphine on Venus. The research was clearly on the crazy side of the line between mainstream and insane. Because Venus is such an odd place for life. The surface is so hot, just in The atmosphere is cold enough. Bacteria also float in our clouds on Earth, but the clouds on Venus are made of strong acids, not water. They contain sulfuric acid, which can make a hole in your clothes.

“But to search for extraterrestrial life, you need an open mind and you have to dare to take risks. Two and a half years ago, our collaboration led to a publication. We reported the presence of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus and wrote hundreds of pages explaining why this gas did not originate there. known chemistry.

However, not everyone is satisfied?

“We said from the start: This is not yet evidence of life. However, the result immediately became controversial. Our colleagues and friends were outraged. They published new analyzes of our measurement data in which no phosphine signal was seen. Others found the signal, but concluded it was It’s not phosphine. I still stand by my team. It takes a long time to refute all the criticism.”

Seager is used to walking in front of the troops. Thirty years ago, as a PhD student, she was one of the first in the world to work with exoplanets that, as seen from Earth, are moving in front of their star. This results in a periodic dip in starlight from which you can infer the planet’s presence. Also, if that planet has an atmosphere, some starlight can leak through and astronomers on Earth can tell which particles are in that atmosphere.

It was all theory at the time. “I once went to apply for a job with an older, supposedly wiser professor. ‘We will not or hardly notice what you suggest,’ he said. Today we have observed such planets a thousand times. That took a while. Young people started working with exoplanets. I had to The old foundation is finally to move forward.”

She also believes that this applies to extraterrestrial life. “I think with Venus I’m on the crazy side of splitting up again now,” she says. “Sometimes I use ChatGPT when I’m not sure how to say something. In that case, I would ask, ‘ChatGPT, how can I say this so well? on the outer planets someday. We may not believe it, but it will be enough to keep searching. For the money for another telescope. ”

Your book will be published in 2021 The smallest lights in the universe. While most people on your site write a book about their own research, I wrote a personal memoir about how you dealt with the loss of your first husband. Why?

“Becoming a widow is like visiting another planet. Even a completely different universe. Then I met a group of women, all widows, and they helped me through it. They’re still in my life. I felt crazy and happy and funny and tragic, all magnified to extreme proportions by that loss. And I kept I tell them, This is crazy, someone should write a book about this.”

Soon after losing your husband, you compare yourself to an exoplanet where it is always dark and rains molten iron. How personal is the universe to you?

“As I was going through that period, I was also working, looking for planets. Suddenly my research in extraterrestrial space mirrored my research in inner space. I decided to explain that more in the book.

“I’ve always loved space. Sometimes when I look out on a dark night I feel lonely and scared. Sometimes there’s something very comforting about it. As a kid, I had a skylight and watched the stars before I fell asleep. Earth is one spot in a huge world. I look up every Night. Sometimes it only takes a split second, but the thought of our place in the universe is always on my mind.”

In the book, you write casually that you have been told you have Asperger’s Syndrome. What role does this play in your work and life?

“It helped me understand how people interact with me. Why interviewing like this is so hard work. It’s almost like learning to speak another language. I often have to consciously act differently, otherwise people will think I’m too blunt and cold. By my nature, I have no place to talk.” The little one, being so fun and cute I need some kind of ChatGPT in my mind to help me with that.

“My current husband is the funniest person ever, so charming. He thought I was mean and tough at first. Now he can joke because he understands.”

For many people, especially when they are diagnosed at a young age, there is a kind of shame associated with it. Because I wasn’t diagnosed until much later, I never felt like it. I don’t want anyone’s pity. And I want to help young people overcome their shame.

“My autism is kind of a superpower. I’m happy with it. It gives me focus and helped me become a great scientist. I can easily ignore any distraction. I’m not very interested in other people’s opinions. That’s also very important in science. Because if you’re engaged in what he thinks others about you, you would never dare to take a risk.”

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