Life Beyond the Solar System: From Science Fiction to Science
by Michaël Gillon, Senior Research Associate of the FRS-FNRS at the STAR (Space Sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics) Institute of the University of Liège, Belgium. Dr. Gillon is known for leading the team that discovered a planetary system around the star TRAPPIST-1.
The conference will take place on Wednesday, October 24, 2018 at 7:30 pm, at the University of Montreal, at Pavillon Jean-Brillant, room B-2325.
No prior knowledge is necessary. IREx conferences are for anyone who wants to learn about exoplanets and astronomy, regardless of age or scientific knowledge.
Since the dawn of time, the existence of other inhabited worlds has fascinated human beings. Until the Copernican revolution, this pluralistic hypothesis remained purely mythological or philosophical. Only with the understanding that our Earth, far from being the center of the universe, is only one of many planets orbiting the Sun, which is itself nothing more than a star similar in every respect to the stars lining the celestial vault, did cosmic pluralism become a dominant notion defended by many scholars and philosophers. Later, astronomy taught us that there are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, our galaxy, and that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our expanding Universe. Faced with such immensity, it is very tempting to hypothesize the existence of other inhabited planets, and even other advanced civilizations, somewhere beyond our solar system. Indeed this hypothesis captivated the public during the second half of 20th century, with the help of countless science fiction stories, novels and movies. Over the past two decades, this fascination has become even stronger, this time thanks to science instead of science fiction. Indeed, in the 90s, astronomers detected the first exoplanets, that is to say the first planets orbiting another star than the Sun. Since these historical discoveries, more than 3000 exoplanets have been detected at an ever-accelerating pace. A few dozens of these are “potentially habitable”, that is to say they could be rocky worlds harboring oceans of water on their surface, like our Earth. From there, imagining complex forms of life on some of these planets is but a small step away, one that is happily crossed by many. But our imagination will soon be replaced by real scientific measures, because, in the next decade, our most powerful telescopes will be able to probe the atmospheric compositions of some of these extrasolar worlds, and possibly even find chemical traces of life there. If successful, our view of Cosmos will change forever…
Born on January 24, 1974 in Liège, Belgium, Michaël Gillon is a FRS-FNRS Senior Research Associate at the STAR (Space Sciences, Technologies and Astrophysics) Institute at the University of Liège, Belgium. At the age of 24, after seven years in the Belgian army, he began studying sciences at the University of Liège. From there he obtained a Bachelor degrees in Biology (2000) and Physics (2003), and a Masters in Biochemistry (2002) and Astrophysics (2006). After these studies, he did a doctoral thesis on the detection of exoplanets which he defended in 2006 in Liège. He then joined the Observatory of the University of Geneva (Switzerland) as a postdoctoral researcher as part of the team of Michael Mayor and Didier Queloz, the two discoverers of the first exoplanet in 1995. He returned to Liège in 2009, notably to initiate and lead the TRAPPIST and SPECULOOS exoplanet projects.
Michaël Gillon has made several major contributions to the detection and characterization of exoplanets. He notably led the first size measurement of a Neptune sized exoplanet (2007) and the first detection of the emission of a rocky exoplanet (2012). He is also the principal discoverer of the famous planetary system TRAPPIST-1 (2016, 2017) composed of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a small nearby star, many of which are potentially habitable and well adapted for follow-up detailed atmospheric studies. The importance of his contributions to the study of exoplanets and to the search for life elsewhere in the Universe earned him one of the prestigious Balzan Awards in 2017, and to be nominated as one of the 100 most influential personalities in the world by the Times magazine.
The Pavillon Jean-Brillant at the Université de Montréal is at 3200 Jean-Brillant. It is easily accessible by subway, through Côte-des-Neiges metro station on the blue line. Walk on Chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges towards the Oratoire Saint-Joseph and turn left on Jean-Brillant street. The building will be less than 5 minutes away, on your right. Directions to the room will then be clearly visible.