Live in California? NASA Ames Center on Feb. 19 has a talk between Lynn Rothschild and George Coyne on whether Earth is the only habitable planet

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The former director of this observatory will be in California on February 19.

NASA's Ames Center sent out a press release on the event yesterday. Apparently there will be a discussion on February 19 between Lynn Rothschild and George Coyne on whether Earth is the only habitable planet in the universe.

That second name might ring a bell for those interested in the relationship between science and religion, because he's the director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, and had a long talk with prominent atheist Richard Dawkins on the relationship between religion and science:

This is only the first video of seven. The two naturally disagree on questions regarding the existence of God and so on, but they clearly both respect the other's work in their respective fields and they also do agree that religion and science should be kept apart (i.e. you don't use the Bible to help you with your lab work or a calculation) so IMO show what the ideal relationship between science and religion should be.

Back to the press release - this is a discussion about whether Earth is the only habitable planet in the universe, which is a bit of an odd title; of course there are other habitable planets in the universe, it's just a question of whether they are inhabited or not. And even the question of whether there are inhabited planets or not is really just a question of when we discover them, not whether they exist. Consider for example the upcoming Kepler Mission, which will be searching for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, making it the most exciting mission this decade. Kepler will observe over 100,000 stars over its 3.5-year mission. Sounds like a lot, but here's what this will amount to compared to our own Milky Way galaxy:

That small yellow ray is the area that Kepler will be able to search, a tiny fraction of the entire galaxy. And once we have observed the entire Milky Way there are still some 200 billion or so other galaxies to search through, each with some 400 billion stars in each one. Also note that life doesn't necessarily have to exist in a planet orbiting a star but could also exist in a moon orbiting a much larger planet, and in addition to that there are likely a large number of rogue planets in between solar systems that could also have life.

It's generally accepted that in science one should never draw conclusions before finding conclusive evidence, but in a situation where we have a few hundred billion galaxies each with a few hundred billion stars, the assumption we should be working on is that there is life elsewhere and that we still just haven't discovered it. Though there's always the possibility that life just never happened to take anywhere else besides where we live, there's also the undeniable fact that there really is nothing special at all about our Solar System compared to others.

That's probably the type of discussion that will come up on February 19th so if you live in the area be sure to check it out, and if you have a blog to write about the discussion afterwards even better. Price is a mere $15:

Sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California in association with the Yale Club of Silicon Valley and NASA's Ames Research Center. Refreshments will be served prior to the beginning of the lecture.

WHERE: NASA's Ames Research Center, Building 3 ballroom

WHEN: Feb.19, 2009
- 6:30 p.m. PST: Participant check-in
- 7 p.m. PST: the lecture starts

WHO: Lynn Rothschild, astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center, and George Coyne, director emeritus of the Vatican Observatory will discuss the possibility of other habitable planets in the universe and Ames Center Director, S. Pete Worden, will moderate.

Admission is $10 for Commonwealth Club members and $15 for non-members. Tickets can be purchased in advance by contacting Georgette Gehue of the Commonwealth Club at or 408-280-5842 or by visiting:


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