Politics

She Dreams of Pink Planets and Alien Dinosaurs

Have dinosaurs evolved on other worlds? Could we spot a planet of glowing organisms? What nearby star systems are positioned to observe Earth passing in front of the sun?

These are just a few of the questions that Lisa Kaltenegger has joyfully tackled. As the founding director of the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University, she has pioneered interdisciplinary work on the origins of life on Earth and the hunt for signs of life, or biosignatures, elsewhere in the universe.

Dr. Kaltenegger’s new book, “Alien Earths: The New Science of Planet Hunting in the Cosmos,” to be published on April 16, chronicles her insights and adventures spanning an idyllic childhood in Austria to her Cornell office, which previously belonged to the astronomer Carl Sagan. She spoke with The New York Times about the intense public interest in aliens, the wisdom of trying to contact intelligent civilizations, and the weirdest creatures she’s grown in her lab. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You look for real aliens in the observable universe. How much is the diversity of opinion and emotion from people around the search for extraterrestrial life top-of-mind in your research? Or are U.F.O.s and sci-fi E.T.s something you have to tune out?

For me, it’s inspirational that so many people are excited. The other part of that coin is that we are so close, because we have the James Webb Space Telescope now being able to look at these small planets that could potentially be like Earth. We don’t have to go with dubious or hard-to-interpret evidence anymore.

I wrote this book because I think a lot of people might not be so aware of where we are right now, and that they are living in this momentous time in history. We can all be a part of it.

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