Scientific Controversies No. 22: Exoplanets

There may be billions of trillions of planets in the observable universe—possibly more planets than there are stars. These exoplanets range from giant storms of pure gas, like Jupiter, to rocky planets, like Earth, orbiting all manner of stars including dead collapsed neutron stars or even black holes. Their landscapes, weather, and astronomical calendars are stranger than science fiction could predict, as though the universe has experimented with every physically conceivable possibility. It seems unsustainable to imagine that only here on Earth has life emerged.

Despite the plethora of exoplanets, we can only observe those closest to us in our neighborhood of the Milky Way galaxy. They are simply too small and too faint to see across vast distances. Still, in our galactic neighborhood, we have already discovered over 4,000 to date. Scientists are scanning these proximate celestial bodies for any signs of life.

Our Director of Sciences, Prof. Janna Levin, invites NASA’s Kepler Mission Scientist Prof. Natalie Batalha and comparative exoplanetary scientist Prof. Rebecca Oppenheimer to discuss exoplanets, undiscovered life forms beyond our solar system, and if we will ever encounter kindred inhabitants of the Milky Way.

Join us before and after the conversation for rare grooves from DJ Black Helmet and stargazing with the Amateur Astronomers Association of NY in our garden.

Ahead of this event, join Pioneer Works Resident Alum Besty Kenyon for a workshop exploring the exoplanets orbiting our imagination. Learn the process of cliché-verre, or glass printing, and use the star we circle to make iron-rich cyanotypes outdoors. Learn more and register here.

Natalie Batalha is an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center and the project scientist for NASA’s Kepler Mission. She started her career as a stellar spectroscopist studying young, sun-like stars, before working on transit photometry—an emerging technology for finding exoplanets. She has been involved with the Kepler Mission since the proposal stage and has contributed to many different aspects of the science, from studying the stars themselves to detecting and understanding the planets they harbor. Batalha led the analysis that yielded the discovery in 2011 of Kepler-10b—the mission's first confirmation of a rocky planet outside our solar system. She was awarded a NASA Public Service Medal for her vision in communicating Kepler science to the public and for outstanding leadership in coordinating the Kepler Science Team. Today, she leads the effort to understand planet populations in the galaxy based on Kepler discoveries. She is part of the leadership team for a NASA initiative dedicated to the search for evidence of life beyond the Solar System. Batalha also serves on the James Webb Space Telescope Advisory Committee and as a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Astrophysics Subcommittee. She holds a Bachelor's degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Doctoral degree in astrophysics from UC Santa Cruz, and is a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Santa Cruz.

Rebecca Oppenheimer is a comparative exoplanetary scientist and a curator at the American Natural History Museum. Her optics laboratory in the Rose Center for Earth and Space is the birthplace of a number of new astronomical instruments designed to tackle the problem of directly seeing and taking spectra of nearby solar systems. In March 2004, Oppenheimer deployed the world's most sensitive coronagraph at the AEOS Telescope in Maui. In June 2008, her team deployed an even more precise and sensitive exoplanet imaging system at the Palomar Observatory. This instrument is called Project 1640 and involves researchers at AMNH, Cambridge, Caltech, and NASA/JPL. All of these instrumentation efforts, as well as several others including the starlight suppression system for the International Gemini Observatory Planet Imager project (GPI), were conducted in Oppenheimer's lab in the Museum's Rose Center for Earth and Space. Project 1640 became the first research effort to conduct a reconnaissance of all the known planets in another planetary system in March 2013.  Oppenheimer also works on faint white dwarfs, the remnants of normal stars, and brown dwarfs, star-like objects that are too small to be stars but too large to be called planets. She is the co-discoverer of the first brown dwarf, called Gliese 229B, and was the first scientist to study the atmospheric composition, chemistry and physics of a sub-stellar object outside our solar system.

Janna Levin is the Director of Sciences and the editor-in-chief of The Broadcast at Pioneer Works. She is also the Claire Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. A Guggenheim Fellow, Janna has contributed to an understanding of black holes, the cosmology of extra dimensions, and gravitational waves in the shape of spacetime. She is the presenter of the NOVA feature Black Hole Apocalypse, aired on PBS—the first female presenter for NOVA in 35 years. Janna also won a PEN prize for a first work of fiction. Her latest book is Black Hole Survival Guide.

Note: Due to Covid-19, we can’t be as free-spirited with the guest list as we used to be. Tickets are $10 to reserve your spot, but the $10 can be used as a credit towards a purchase in our bookstore at the event.

While we cannot offer refunds for tickets, please do let us know if your plans change so we can open up spots on the waitlist.

If you cannot afford a ticket, please do send us a note at and we will add you to the guest list, no questions asked.

We look forward to welcoming you back to our building.

This event is co-presented with Scientific American.

This project is supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.