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'Are We Alone?' to be topic of astronomy's Icko Iben Distinguished Lecture

James E. Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Steven Beckwith, the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, will present the third talk in the department of astronomy's Icko Iben Jr. Distinguished Lectureship at 4 p.m. Oct. 4 in Foellinger Auditorium, 709 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana. The talk, "Are We Alone?," is free and open to the public.

"We are very pleased to be bringing Steven Beckwith to campus for the third lecture in this series," said Richard Crutcher, the chair of the astronomy department. "The topic of Beckwith's talk is the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, which should be of interest to faculty, students and the general public."

Each year the Iben lectureship brings a noted astronomer to campus to highlight some of the latest developments in astronomy, Crutcher said. In addition to giving a public lecture, the invited speaker also will give a technical colloquium and meet informally with faculty members and students.

In his public talk, Beckwith will discuss how recent advances in astronomy may point to potential sites for life in other planetary systems; how the discovery of life in harsh environments and the potential for life on Mars and on Europa -- the fourth largest moon of Jupiter -- indicate an optimism about the robustness of life; and how an understanding of Earth's history shows the difficulties encountered by intelligent life in evolution.

More than 40 planets already have been discovered around stars other than the sun. The search for these "extrasolar" planets requires large telescopes and extremely sensitive instruments. Oftentimes, the planet's presence is detected by monitoring slight wobbles in the motion of the host star. As more planets are found, astronomers hope to better understand the planet-formation process.

In addition to serving as director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Beckwith also is a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. His principal research interests are the formation and early evolution of planets, including those outside the Solar System, and the birth of galaxies in the early universe.

The Space Telescope Science Institute is responsible for coordinating the scientific operations of the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched on April 24, 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope is one of the largest and most complex astronomical observatories placed in orbit. The institute employs nearly 500 astronomers, computer scientists, technicians and administrative staff.