Are we alone in the universe?
One of the biggest, and most challenging, questions we can ask about the cosmos around us. To answer it, and to figure out how much life there is in the universe, and what that means, involves stepping well outside the traditional boundaries of scientific disciplines—because ideas and innovations in one field can have huge impact on another. Finding those connections, those sparks, is an exhilarating thing.
How should we look for life elsewhere?
The discovery of exoplanets has transformed the effort to look for other life. If the Earth is a fair template, it suggests that we might detect extraterrestrial life by the changes it makes to a planetary environment. The chemical composition of a distant exoplanetary atmosphere or surface is key. But to develop and deploy the next generation of telescopic instruments to make such measurements involves understanding what makes small rocky planets tick. Climates, orbits, and chemistries are all complex phenomena that change over time, and represent a fascinating problem for brains and computers to solve.
Where and how did life on Earth originate?
Traditionally, science has considered life on Earth to have an origin point, a place and time when the first recognizable organism assembled. But could this origin point actually be smeared out across the structures and chemistry of interstellar space and proto-stellar space that our solar system condensed from?
Are planets the best places for life?
Not only may the Earth be less “habitable” than many exoplanets, it’s not clear that surface dwelling life is the norm. Most terrestrial microbes live in the planetary subsurface, and in our solar system the bulk of the liquid water probably exists in dark oceans deep beneath icy crusts—places like the moons Europa, Enceladus, Titan, and even Pluto. Can we look for life in these places, and could we see clues from afar?
Is there anything special about life?
Maybe. Maybe not. We need to find out.