Looking for life beyond Earth

first_imgCould life exist beyond our own blue planet? According to scientist Carolyn Porco, it’s certainly possible.Porco is the director of flight operations and imaging team leader for the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn. Her work involves taking detailed pictures in space, shots that offer insights into the nature of the universe, and signs of life elsewhere in the solar system.“Gorgeous” was how she described the Cassini images to a crowd at the Radcliffe Gymnasium in a talk on April 1. Her listeners agreed.There was a collective gasp from the student-filled audience as she showed a photo of Saturn taken during an eclipse of the sun. The negative-looking image revealed a sharp outline of the planet and its surrounding rings.Porco spoke as part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Dean’s Lecture Series. The lectures are part of the institute’s Academic Engagement Programs (AEP), which sponsor projects with Harvard faculty, Radcliffe Institute fellows, and Harvard students in scholarly and research endeavors.The Cassini mission, which began in 1997, has been studying Saturn and its diverse system of moons, sending back stunning images and even evidence that life could exist 932 million miles from Earth.Some of the mission’s highlights involve analysis of Saturn’s rings, their makeup, the gaps between them, and little “moonlettes.” The study of such moonlettes and the gaps they influence provides a “giant touchstone” for understanding how planets are formed, noted the scientist, who also discussed two of the planet’s moons in detail, Titan and its much smaller counterpart, Enceladus.With Titan having an atmosphere vaguely similar to the Earth’s, including the presence of molecular nitrogen, as well as a troposphere and stratosphere, researchers were eager to get a closer look at the large moon in orbit around Saturn. They did, with the help of Huygens, a European-designed probe that landed on Titan’s surface in 2005. The event was worthy of a ticker tape parade, said an emotional Porco, who recalled seeing grown men brought to tears when the probe landed.“This was like a Jules Verne adventure come true,” said Porco. “It was the day humanity landed a device of our making in the outer solar system.”The images sent back from the probe were “outrageously easy to interpret,” said Porco, and included shots of a branching “dendritic drainage pattern” on the moon’s surface, one that only could have been formed by the flow of liquids. There also were photos of mountainous regions and a series of dunes.The data revealed that Titan “was alien and exotic and yet strangely Earth-like” in its geological and geographical complexity.On the small, icy moon Enceladus, “the mother lode of all discoveries was discovered at the South Pole,” said Porco. She described Cassini’s findings of elevated temperatures in the moon’s polar region, as well as an enormous plume of icy particles shooting tens of thousands of kilometers into space.Analysis of the icy trail, which includes water vapor and trace amounts of organic materials such as methane, carbon dioxide, and propane, suggests it is fueled by geysers erupting from a pocket of salt water within the moon.The findings, noted Porco, point to the possibility of  “an environment where life itself might be stirring.”“Should we ever discover that a second genesis had occurred in our solar system, independently outside the Earth,” she added, “then I think at that point the spell is broken. The existence theorem has been proven, and we could safely infer from it that life was not a bug but a feature of the universe in which we live, that it’s commonplace and has occurred a staggering number of times.”last_img read more

Looking for his big break

first_imgDerek Mueller sang and acted his way through four years at Harvard, and now, with Commencement looming, he’s taking his show on the road.Mueller, a senior psychology concentrator and Mather House resident, spent the past three years as a member of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the nation’s oldest collegiate theatrical troupe, known for its annual burlesque show and for its traditional roasts of a Man and Woman of the Year, selected from the ranks of the world’s top entertainers.For the past year, Mueller served as Hasty Pudding’s cast vice president, helping guide the creative process that led to this year’s production, “Commie Dearest,” a heartfelt tale (not really) about a young girl (a man) in the 1950s suburbs, joining forces with communists to fight misogyny and win the American Dream. Mueller played “Olive Lucy,” the owner of the local bowling alley (what could be more American?) where the townspeople congregated.With work on next year’s production beginning in the spring, Mueller said Hasty Pudding dominated his time at Harvard, though he also spent his freshman year with the Krokodiloes, Harvard’s oldest a cappella singing group. Mueller said the Krokodiloes’ extensive summer tour allowed him to see countries on six continents.The Hasty Pudding Theatricals experience is so consuming that each spring when the year’s performance — which includes a spring break tour to New York and Bermuda — is over, Mueller said he finds himself at loose ends.“After the show ends and I get back from Bermuda, I don’t know what to do with my time. I wander about like a lost puppy,” Mueller said.Of course this year, with graduation looming, Mueller has a bit more to contemplate. When asked his plans, Mueller said without hesitation, “I want to be a pop singer.” He plans to embrace the vagaries of fame, fortune, and the entertainment industry and head west after graduation to Los Angeles, where he’ll work the phones and Internet and see what happens.After describing his plan, Mueller, who hails from Cincinnati, hastens to say that he’s not normally as impulsive as the plan sounds, but that it’s time for him to make this kind of a move and it’s one he’s excited about.Mueller has been interested in music since he was young. On arriving at Harvard, he decided not to pursue a music degree because it is focused on theory and he is more interested in performance. Psychology allows him to understand people better, which helps in acting. In addition to his time with the Krokodiloes and Hasty Pudding Theatricals, Mueller composed, sang, and played piano on his own. He acknowledges that the Hasty Pudding’s style is different from his own music, but he relishes the Pudding experience nonetheless.When asked what advice he’d give incoming freshmen, Mueller advises them not to listen to any.“Make your own mistakes,” Mueller said. “Trying to apply what others learned from their mistakes will short-circuit your own experience.”last_img read more