Astrophysicist Michelle Thaller on Understanding Our Place in the Universe

Autodesk vice president Brian Mathews talks with the NASA science communicator about the search for life on other planets and why it’s important

Last December, when astrophysicist Michelle Thaller took to the stage at the Smithsonian’s “Long Conversation,” an event that brought together 25 thinkers for an eight-hour relay of two-person dialogues at the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building, there were 3,558 known planets outside of our solar system.

“Close your eyes and randomly point to a star,” she said. “That star has a solar system.”

Thaller, a science communicator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, shared the number to bring some perspective on the search for extraterrestrial life.

“Pretty soon, we are going to have examples of how life exists in our solar system outside the Earth and possibly in other solar systems,” she added.

To her interviewer Brian Mathews, the vice president of Autodesk, and the audience gathered at the event, Thaller explained how the James Webb Space Telescope, slated to launch in 2021, will, for the first time, be able to measure the chemistry of the atmosphere on these different planets light years away. Is there methane? Is there oxygen? Is there carbon dioxide? Might there be microbial life? Getting a firmer grasp on what’s out there in space, in terms of planets and habitable ones, has a mind-blowing effect on our point of view as Earthlings.

“It’s helping us come together and actually see ourselves in the larger context of the universe,” Thaller said. “That’s what I’m optimistic about.”

Mark your calendars for this year’s “Long Conversation,” which will bring an impressive group of scientists, musicians, inventors, tech CEOs and others together on December 7, 2018. Watch it on livestream here.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.