Long before the discovery of the first planet beyond our solar system, astronomer Laurance Doyle began theorizing about the habitability of planets around other stars, clarifying the conditions needed for a planet to bear life. Relying on his expertise in signal processing, he now looks for patterns in astronomical data, searching for extrasolar planets.
Recently, Doyle has begun using these same statistical tools to look for patterns in animal communication. Drawing on central concepts of information theory, he and colleagues from the University of California at Davis have precisely measured the complexity of the songs of humpback whales, comparing them with communication in other species—including humans. In the future, he plans to expand this innovative line of research, moving to the next level of understanding animal communication. Not content to understand how much an animal can communicate, he seeks to understand the meaning of the vocalizations of other species.
(Excerpt from an Interview with Laurance Doyle)
QUESTION: How will you know if the planet is habitable?
For a planet to have the potential to be inhabited, it must be the right distance from the star so it will receive the right amount of light. The temperature of a habitable planet should allow liquid water to exist on the surface for long periods of time.
Based on the best available ground- and space-based data, I expected there would be about 350 eclipsing binaries in the Kepler data. Actually, there turned out to be more like 3,000 to 4,000 eclipsing binaries that Kepler sees. Just in our first year, we had to look at tens of thousands of light curves to pick out these eclipsing binaries.
QUESTION: Why should the public care about your research?
This work is important for two reasons. If we don’t find a habitable planet, that means earths are rare. It puts the earth in perspective as a somewhat isolated spaceship. That knowledge may allow us to convey the concept that we need to take care of our own planet, and that would be a good thing. People think about moving to Mars, but Mars’ land surface area is only equal to earth’s (since three-fourths of earth is covered with water). With earth’s population currently doubling every 54 years, moving to Mars would only buy us another half century. So earth is it for now.
If we do find another earth, whether it’s around a circumbinary “earth” or a regular single sun-like star, I think people’s thoughts are going to transition to becoming less self-centered. Finding another earth might also make us think more positively about finding other beings in the universe. We have a very real shot at finding other earths with the Kepler Mission. We could detect a potentially habitable extrasolar planet within the next three years. Kepler is hugely important for the question of life in the universe. This is a key time in history.