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Should we be looking for life elsewhere in the universe? - Aomawa Shields


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As the number of “potentially habitable” planets that astronomers find continues to rise, we seem ever closer to answering the question, “Are we alone in the universe?” But should we be looking for life elsewhere? If we were to find life in one of these worlds, should we try to contact any beings who may live there? Is that wise? Aomawa Shields navigates the murky waters of pursuing curiosity.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

The educator for this lesson is a an NSF Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and soon to be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California at Irvine. She's also an Astrobiologist. Astrobiology is the study of the origin of life on Earth, how it has evolved and continues to evolve over time, and how widely distributed life might be in the universe. Astrobiologists have different science backgrounds. Some are astronomers and some are biologists, geologists, chemists, biologists, atmospheric scientists, even oceanographers! What they have in common is that they are all working to use our respective backgrounds to answer questions about life in the universe. This site: Ask an Astrobiologist at NASA has some great answers to some questions you might have. It also provides some information about what it takes to be an astrobiologist.

Here is a website devoted to astrobiology where you can learn about this exciting, relatively new field, and the many scientific discoveries that astrobiologists have made in the quest to better understand the world we live in and its history, as well as that of other planets within and outside of our solar system. Understanding how life got started on our planet will help us better understand how life could emerge and evolve on other worlds.

Perplexed with the idea of extrasolar planets? This link will help provide some more information! Exoplanets 101.

Astronomers have discovered planets that are similar in size to the Earth, and some that are MUCH bigger. Some planets are blazingly hot, while others are frigid, orbiting far away from their stars. One thing we’ve learned is that our own solar system is not a typical system. In fact, there might not be a typical system out there. Every system, every planet—just like every person on the Earth—is unique. And that’s pretty special.

The universe is literally teeming with planets. Do you think it’s just us?

Looking for more on astrobiology? These TED-Ed lessons are an “out of this world” place to start!
-Why extremophiles bode well for life beyond Earth - Louisa Preston
-A needle in countless haystacks: Finding habitable worlds - Ariel Anbar

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Aomawa Shields
  • Script Editor Eleanor Nelsen
  • Art Director Rémi Cans
  • Senior Animator Rémi Cans
  • Composer Erwann Chandon
  • Sound Designer Erwann Chandon
  • Narrator Aomawa Shields

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