Meeting Information

Prospects for Life & Human Habitability Around Nearby Stars Many Possible Homes - But the Likely Neighbors Are Microbes

April 25, 2018
American Center for Physics
College Park, MD

Date: April 25, 2018

Speaker: Carey M. Lisse, Principal Staff Scientist Planetary Exploration Group-Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University

Topic: Prospects for Life & Human Habitability Around Nearby Stars Many Possible Homes - But the Likely Neighbors Are Microbes

Time and Location: 1:00 p.m., with Q&A to follow in a 1st floor conference room at the American Center for Physics (, 1 Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD - off River Rd., between Kenilworth Ave. and Paint Branch Parkway.

Abstract: This talk will present the current "big picture" for the formation and evolution of life on Earth, with special attention to its astronomical, geological, and chemical requirements. Astronomically, there are 10^11 stars in our Galaxy, each according to the latest Kepler results likely to have formed its own Earth-sized planet. The Universe is 13.8 billion years (Gyr) old, the Galaxy is about 12 Gyr old, our Sun is ~4.6 Gyr old, and high-Z chemical elements took a few generations of stars to form. Sol and our Solar System are ~2/3 of the way out from our spiral galaxy’s relatively weak central black hole, in the suburbs so to speak. The Earth itself is a 4.56 Gyr old, highly differentiated, very unique object with all its water on the surface, a giant Moon stabilizing its spin, plate tectonics keeping it warm and a shielding magnetic field. Life is found on the Earth in an incredibly narrow spatial range, -20 to +100 km from the surface of a body of diameter ~10^4 km, and is found only where liquid water is available. We live, work, & die on the thinnest wet rind of the terrestrial orange. Failed planet harbors for life exist next-door in Venus and Mars. Historically, the first forms of life appear to have formed in high temperature environments. Earth-life was mainly blue-green and single-celled for the first 3.5 Gyr of the planet’s existence. By ~2 Gyr, in the first massive life-based pollution event in the planet’s timeline, phototrophic plant life had driven the atmosphere out of equilibrium, removing almost all CO2 and converting it in the O2 without which it is likely there would be few animals and no land dwelling creatures. Complex multi-cellular life only arrived after ~3.5 Gyr. Since then, multi-cellular life has gone through at least 4 huge upheavals due to giant impacts. But for these bug-eyed monsters, trilobites, or giant lizards would be ruling the Earth. Creatures even remotely resembling Homo Sapiens have been on the Earth for only ~4 million years (Myr) out of 4.56 Gyr, an ~10^-3 duty cycle. Even today, bacteria are the most successful forms of life reckoned by total biomass, and we each carry some of this biomass on our skin, in our gut, and in our mitochondria.

Biography: Carey M. Lisse is Senior Research Scientist in the Applied Physics Laboratory of The Johns Hopkins University. Prior to assuming his current position he held a variety of posts at APL and NASA. Carey has been active in the fields of astronomy and physics since 1985, where he began as an instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard on the Nobel prize winning COBE project. He later moved over to planetary studies, writing his dissertation on comets detected in the COBE all sky survey. Since then he has focused primarily on comets, making important discoveries about their X-ray emissions and working on the NASA Deep Impact mission from start to finish, including using the Spitzer Space Telescope to observe dust excavated from the Comet 9P/Tempel 1 by the DI Impactor. He also studies asteroids and x-ray emission from planets, and searches for the presence of asteroids and comets around other stars. Carey is the Chair of the Comet ISON Observing Campaign Team, overseeing the team's activities. Carey received a number of awards as part of the COBE team, the JPL Stardust flight team, and the EPOXI flight team. He is the recipient of a Space Telescope Science Institute Science Merit Award, a Space Foundation Space Achievement Award, a Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Special Achievement Award, and he was awarded the Isaac Newton Institute Visiting Fellowship at Cambridge University. Carey is an AAAS Fellow. And the Asteroid 12226 Caseylisse is named for him. In addition to his scholarly work, Carey speaks widely about planetary science and he has appeared in more numerous documentaries about planetary science and cosmology. He earned a BA in Chemistry at Princeton, an MS in Chemistry at UC - Berkeley, and an MS and a PhD in Physics at the University of Maryland.