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Berkeley’s Geoff Marcy brings the Kepler expedition to life for UCOP

You’ve heard about Kepler, the space-borne telescope that has revealed hundreds of exoplanets, planets outside our solar system revolving around their own suns.

But did you know that one of the minds behind Team Kepler is right here at UC, an alum of UCLA and UC Santa Cruz, professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and director of Berkeley’s Center for Integrative Planetary Science?

He is Geoff Marcy, and despite his rock star status in the world of astrophysics, he sometimes acts like a little kid in a toy store when he gets talking about Kepler and its findings. Which is exactly what he did at UCOP for 60 star-studded minutes in his March 16 talk, “The Hunt for Another Earth,” part of the President’s Speaker Series.

“This is an amazing moment in science history,” Marcy said, animatedly narrating a slide show full of time-lapse charts, home video, artists’ renderings of new planets and other celestial treats. “We’re in an incredible era where we can study systems of multiple stars and planets and ask, ‘How does our solar system fit in?’”

Describing the diversity of planet types out there — rocky, gaseous, giant waterworlds, and how they compare with the planet we know best — he speculated whether some of them might harbor microbes or even intelligent, “technological” life.

“The human connection to this science is so compelling,” Marcy said. “The galaxy might be teeming with life, but where is everybody? Why haven’t they found us?”

Kepler, a 95-megapixel telescope with a 10 X 10-degree field of view, can measure brightness to within 0.01 percent. As sophisticated as the instrument is, the science behind it is simple, Marcy explained.

When Kepler, trained on a particular star, visualizes a blot that moves across that star along a plane and follows a cyclical pattern, a planet is revealed. The frequency of its cycle reveals the planet’s orbital period, and the amount of dimming of the star reveals the planet’s size.

“The beauty of this telescope is that you can get data 24/7,” he added, data so granular that a given planet’s density can also be extrapolated. Kepler is yielding a wealth of information about thousands of planets, despite the fact that “we have absolutely no idea what these planets actually look like,” Marcy said.

His home video footage of the March 2009 Kepler launch from Kennedy Space Center — accompanied by squeals and shouts of “You go, baby!” from the 25 or so colleagues who shared the moment — was one of the highlights of the talk. The team was naturally excited, Marcy explained, but had been apprehensive about the mission’s success due to the failure a few weeks before of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) mission just 17 minutes into its launch.

Another highlight was the Kepler Orrery, recently created by Marcy’s colleague D. Fabrycky, an animated graphic illustrating the hundreds of multiple-planet systems Kepler has discovered so far. The dizzying array of tiny balls spinning at various speeds around multiple solar systems makes you feel minuscule indeed.

With all those planets out there, what are the chances that some of them support intelligent life? There are several possible explanations for why we have not yet encountered even one, despite our efforts, Marcy posited.

“Microbial life is probably common, but intelligence is probably rare,” Marcy said. “We like to think of ourselves as representing the pinnacle of Darwinian evolution, but does evolution favor intelligence?” The dinosaur, with its walnut-sized brain, and the cockroach, with its primitive nervous system, Marcy suggested, are just two examples of how lower forms of intelligence can still possess prodigious survival skills.

The President’s Speaker Series, “On California,” was initiated by President Mark Yudof last year to showcase the talent and public contributions of UC faculty, alumni and other prominent Californians in the areas of education, policy/politics and research.

Upcoming speakers include:

  • Thursday, April 19: Russell Rumberger, Vice Provost, Education Partnerships, and author of Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It
  • Thursday, May 3: Haile T. Debas, M.D., Director, UC Global Health Institute, and former chancellor, UCSF, and dean, UCSF School of Medicine

All events take place 12 to 1 p.m. in Franklin’s Lobby One Conference Room.

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  1. Chris Orr March 27, 2012 Reply

    Great photo of Dr. Marcy! It captures the lively and interesting talk about cosmic questions that he presented to us. That was one of my best lunch times at UCOP. 😉

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