Department of Astronomy & Physics

The Search for Life in the Universe

Speaker: 2018 CAP Lecture Dr. Jan Cami (Associate Professor, Dept. of Physics & Astronomy and Centre for Planetary Science & Exploration, Western University)
Time: March 23, 2018 - 10:00 AM
Location: Room 260 Sobey building



Piecing together recent results from physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry and biology, we can start formulating a scientific answer to perhaps the most important unanswered scientific question: “Are We Alone?” – is life an accidental rarity, or is the Universe teeming with an abundance and wild variety of [intelligent] life forms, separated from each other by the vast space between their home planets?

Carbon isotope evidence points to an early start for life on Earth, and our genes still contain the blueprint of what that early life looked like and what environments it thrived in. The mineralogy of Mars reveals the surprisingly Earth-like past of the red planet, and spectacular observations of water geysers on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn show that their interiors may represent very similar environments as well. Chemical analyses of carbonaceous chondrites and laboratory experiments on cosmic ice analogues furthermore show tantalizing connections between life on Earth and complex organics in space, and astronomical infrared observations indicate that the molecular building blocks for life are widespread and abundant in the Universe.

The development of sensitive astrophysical techniques to detect and study planets around other stars has revolutionized our understanding of exoplanets. Using transit, Doppler and spectroscopic observations, we can measure planet sizes, determine their composition, see their atmospheres, and search for biomarker signatures. We now know that there are billions of planets that have a decent chance to harbor life. Increased odds for life implies better chances to also find intelligent life. Several independent initiatives are currently transforming the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) from a small-scale radio search to a multi-faceted enterprise that will provide firm quantitative limits to the number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy in less than two decades.     

Short Bio

Prof. Jan Cami obtained his BSc and MSc in Physics at the University of Leuven (Belgium). A European MSc program in Astronomy and Astrophysics brought him to the University of Porto (Portugal) and Leiden University (the Netherlands). In 2002, he obtained his PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics (“Molecular Gas and Dust around Evolved Stars”) at the University of Amsterdam (the Netherlands). As a fellow of the National Research Council, he became an astrophysicist in the Astrochemistry Group at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. In 2005, he joined the SETI Institute. Since December 2006, he is a faculty member at Western University where he is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and also serves as Director of the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory and Associate Director of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX). His research focuses on the physics and chemistry of large molecules in space, including fullerenes (“buckyballs”) that he and his team discovered in space in 2010.


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