Learning Resources for the 2018 Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science

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Links to recommended readings and more information to help you continue learning about this year's topic. This webpage will be updated as the lectures progress.

Lecture #1, John Johnson

How To Look for a Liveable Planet presented by John Johnson, Professor of Astronomy and Director of Graduate Studies - Harvard University, on January 20

Exoplanets: Crash Course Astronomy #27 This fun learning research is a crash course about exoplanets -- planets outside our solar system in less than 7 minutes. This rapid guided tour of the techniques scientists are using to discover and study exoplanets is narrated by two enthusiastic personalities. Take the crash course here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFPnOUSdMdc

Kepler Space Telescope: Exoplanet Hunter
The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  • Determine the percentage of planets that are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars
  • Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets
  • Estimate how many planets are in multiple-star systems
  • Determine the variety of characteristics of short-period giant planets
  • Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques
  • Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems. Learn lots more about the Kepler mission and see videos, images at this website: www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFPnOUSdMdcexoplanets.org

The Exoplanet Data Explorer7
The Exoplanet Data Explorer is an interactive table and plotter for exploring and displaying data from the Exoplanet Orbit Database. The Exoplanet Orbit Database is a carefully constructed compilation of quality, spectroscopic orbital parameters of exoplanets orbiting normal stars from the peer-reviewed literature, and updates the Catalog of nearby exoplanets. Explore more here: http://exoplanets.org/

A Brief History of the Ups and Downs of Kepler's Explorations
If you dare, go to this website to watch space scientists sing, dance, and tell the dramatic story of the evolution of the next generation of the Kepler Space Telescope, "The Rise of "K2" If you dare: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcWtg4bCjVM

TedxCambridge talk by Galactic Explorer Sara Seager
MIT Professor of Planetary Science and Physics Sara Seager shows us the techniques and tools she is using in the real-life search for alien life. See this Tedx presentation at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnM4SaGc8R0

TESS -- the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite
This first-ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey will identify planets ranging from Earth-sized to gas giants, around a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances. No ground-based survey can achieve this feat. Learn more at: tess.gsfc.nasa.gov/


Lecture #2, Suvrath Mahadevan

New Tools for Finding the Closest Earth-Like Planets, presented by Suvrath Mahadevan, Associate Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics - Penn State, on January 27

The Habitable Zone Planet Finder (HPF)
Follow the story of HPF on the blog of the Habitable Zone Planet Finder team hpf.psu.edu and follow our live updates and other items of interest on Twitter @HPFspectrograph

The Hobby Eberly Telescope
Read about the recent re-dedication of the 10-meter Hobby Eberly Telescope in this Physics Today article http://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.3592

The Most Precise Ground Based Photometry
See this news article that shows how Penn State astronomers achieved record-setting photometric precision http://science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2017-news/Mahadevan10-2017

NEID is the"newly-selected extreme-precision Doppler spectrograph" now in development at Penn State for high-precision Doppler observations of exoplanets around nearby stars. Follow the building and testing of the new NEID instrument on the blog of the NEID team, led by Penn State's Suvrath Mahadevan, at neid.psu.edu. Get live updates and items of interest on Twitter @NEID_at_WIYN


Lecture #3, Sarah Ballard

Shedding Light on Red Dwarf Stars
This Harvard Horizons talk by Elisabeth Newton is a crash course on how extremely common the smallest stars are, including images of what the night sky would look like if human eyes could see them. Watch the video of Newton's symposium, “Shedding light on red dwarf stars: Fundamental observations of our nearest stellar neighbors." www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgI8e21XjlE

How We'll Find Life on Other Planets
Learn more by watching Professor Aomawa Shield's TED talk about the search for life that might exist elsewhere in the universe, particularly in orbit around the smallest stars. www.ted.com/talks/aomawa_shields_how_we_ll_find_life_on_other_planets

Planet Hunters: A Citizen Scientist Project
Planet Hunters is a citizen science project in which anyone (maybe you?) can search NASA data for exoplanet signals. Just last month, Planet Hunters resulted in the discovery of a system with 5 planets. www.planethunters.org/


Lecture #4, Rebekah Dawson

NASA Kepler and K2 Missions Learn more on this website about the spacecraft that has discovered the most extra-solar planets. www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/main/index.html

LUVOIR Explore a NASA concept for a next-generation giant space telescope. https://asd.gsfc.nasa.gov/luvoir/

Gemini Planet Imager blog On this website, you can see blog posts and images of planets orbiting nearby stars, obtained in near-infrared wavelengths of light by the Gemini Planet Imager -- a next-generation adaptive-optics instrument on the Gemini South Telescope in Chile: http://cosmicdiary.org/blog/category/gpi/

Planet Hunters blog Read an interview with a citizen-scientist Planet Hunter member who has a non-science college degree and also is a coauthor of the scientific paper about the first exocomets discovered using the transit method. blog.planethunters.org

Latest astronomy results If you have a college-level science background, you may enjoy delving into the more technical aspects of research finders here: https://astrobites.org


Lecture #5, James Kasting

Many books have been written on the topic of whether life exists on other planets and whether the evolution of complex life is easy or difficult. Some recent ones include the following:

Rare Earth, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee (2000)
The authors argue that complex life (meaning animals and higher plants) is exceedingly rare. This book was widely read. It is the antithesis of Carl Sagan’s more optimistic perspective.

How to Find a Habitable Planet, by James Kasting (2010)
This book was written partly as a response to NASA’s cancelling the Terrestrial Planet Finder Mission in 2006. It is also partly an antidote to the book by Ward and Brownlee (listed above).

Revolutions that Made the Earth, by Tim Lenton and Andy Watson (2011)
Two geoscientists team up to again predict that complex life, including intelligent life, is rare because it depended on a number of improbably evolutionary events.

Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, by Nick Lane (2010)
A British biologist offers a different, and decidedly more optimistic, viewpoint on the evolution of complex life.

Lucky Planet, by David Waltham (2014)
A British geologist again makes the claim that the life we see here on Earth is rare.

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, by Lee Billings (2013)
A science writer describes his impressions of the search for life. This book includes interviews with numerous scientists involved in this eld.

The Cosmic Zoo: Complex Life on Many Worlds, by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and William Bains (2017)
This book presents an up-to-date discussion of this topic. As the title suggests, the authors are optimistic about the prospects for nding complex life.

The Planet Factory: Exoplanets and the Search for a Second Earth,by Elizabeth Tasker (2017)
A young British astrophysicist describes the ongoing search for habitable planets and for exoplanets in general. This book presents a good discussion of the most recent astronomical data, written for the general public.


Lecture #6, Lisa Kaltenegger

Exoplanets: Crash Course Astronomy #27
This fun learning resource is a crash course in less than 7 minutes about exoplanets -- planets outside our solar system. This rapid guided tour of the techniques scientists are using to discover and study exoplanets is narrated by two enthusiastic personalities.

TESS – The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite
“We soon will launch the rst-ever space-borne all-sky transit survey, which will identify planets ranging from the size of Earth to the size of gas giants orbiting a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances! I am very excited to watch my mission launch next week ... and to spot thousands more fascinating planets in our night sky,” Kaltenegger said. Learn more about the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite at https://tess.gsfc.nasa.gov/

How to Find Life on Other Worlds
This video provides some suggestions: https://research.cornell.edu/video/searching-extraterrestrial-life

Strange new worlds: Looking for Life on Proxima B? Try Growing Aliens
This illustrated feature story in National Geographic magazine describes how transforming harmful radiation into uorescence could help life survive on a planet orbiting the volatile star Proxima Centauri. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/planet-proxima-centauri-life-glowing-corals-radiation-space-science/

Volcanic Hydrogen Spurs Chances of Finding Exoplanet Life Hunting for habitable exoplanets now may be easier: Hydrogen pouring from volcanic sources on planets throughout the universe could improve the chances of locating life in the cosmos. Learn more at

Searching for Life in Space Watch videos here in Spanish, German, and English:


The Penn State Lectures on the Frontiers of Science is a program of the Penn State Eberly College of Science that is designed for the enjoyment and education of residents of the Central Pennsylvania area and beyond.

For more information or access assistance, contact the Eberly College of Science Office of Media Relations and Public Information by telephone at (814) 867-5830 or by e-mail at science@psu.edu.

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