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Is there life on other planets? David Charbonneau, a Harvard associate professor of astronomy and most recent recipient of the Alan T. Waterman Award, thinks there might be.
Charbonneau is currently working on a project called MEarth, which aims to detect planets that are rocky and warm enough to sustain life—previous research has focused mostly on gaseous planets, because they are usually large and easier to view.
The Alan T. Waterman award is specifically targeted to young professionals, requiring that the recipient be under the age of 35, a U.S. citizen, and have had a Ph.D. for fewer than seven years. According to Lisa-Joy Zgorski, the media officer for the National Science Foundation, this award honors “young professionals who have each have achieved great things.”
The award will provide Charbonneau with $500,000 over a three-year period. According to Charbonneau, most traditional research grants need to be approved and often high- risk ideas are not considered, but this award does not have these types of restrictions.
He described this kind of gift as one that will give him the opportunity “to do something that’s a little out of the box.”
His “out of the box” idea is to develop experiments that could determine if life exists on distant rocky planets. On earth, oxygen presence shows evidence of photosynthesis and hence life—if he were able to find oxygen content on another planet, this could be evidence of life.
Christine E. Pulliam, the spokeswoman at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said Charbonneau “is great at taking small grants and making impressive things out of them.”
Charbonneau said he was preparing a lecture for one of his undergraduate astronomy classes when he received a call from the National Science Foundation informing him that he had won the award.
Charbonneau, who also serves as the director of undergraduate studies for astronomy, teaches a number of classes in addition to his research commitments.
This Friday, the NASA Kepler mission—in which Charbonneau is playing a part—is launching with the goal of looking at 100,000 stars to try to find a habitable planet. His specific role in this mission is to see whether the planets are rocky or gaseous, which will be done through calculating the planet’s density.
“This is a giant puzzle and he’s putting the pieces together,” Zgorski said. “He is stellar, pun intended.”
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