Is there life on Mars? Astro-biologists, scientists who study the possibility of extraterrestrial life, have moved beyond the red planet to pose the broader question by asking if we are alone in the Universe.
“The Search for Life in the Universe” is the title of a CSUN planetarium show that explores the possibilities of finding earth-like environments where life, at least hypothetically, could exist.
The show, scheduled for 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 15 at the Donald E. Bianchi Planetarium, introduces viewers to scientific genesis concepts, explains what scientists think is required for life to exist, and spells out the hurdles involved in looking for places out there in the Universe where earth-like life forms might exist.
“Life as we know it would probably need a planet like Earth, with solid ground and with water in the form of liquid,” said Jan Dobias, CSUN astronomy professor and program director for the planetarium. “We’re usually looking for life as we know it.”
Earth-like life forms require elements such as water, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as a climate where temperatures are cold enough for water not to vaporize and warm enough for water to be liquid, Dobias said.
“It doesn’t matter what the source of the heat is,” said Dobias, who pointed out that scientists have yet to find an Earth-like planet with the right conditions.
“I think (discovering extraterrestrial life) would raise questions, but nothing dramatic,” said Dennis Laux, a CSUN history senior who believes in the possibility that we might find lower forms of extraterrestrial life like bacteria, single-cell organisms or plants, but not intelligent creatures. “If you look at all the variables that are necessary for life I’m surprised we even exist.”
“There are billions of stars out there, one has to have something,” said Doug Le, a computer science major, who said he believes that a discovery of extraterrestrial life would dramatically affect our lives.
“(With) religion for instance, I suppose a lot of people would drop it,” Le said. “There was no mention of extraterrestrials in the Bible.”
Maria Alvarez, a sociology major, imagines that extraterrestrial and intelligent life could possibly provide us with valuable knowledge of medicine.
“(The effects) depend on their technology,” Alvarez said. “If they were more advanced than us it would have a big impact.”
The Donald E. Bianchi Planetarium, named after the founding dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, was completed in 1991 and has since been used by the astronomy department as a lecture facility. In 2002, the planetarium began to offer a selection of star shows and lectures available to the public. The current schedule of events offers a back-to-back combination of different star shows followed by lectures on Fridays every other week starting at 7:30 p.m.
“The Search for Life in the Universe” was first shown at CSUN in 2003 and next Friday’s screening is preceded by an autumn sky show starting at 7:30 p.m. After the show, if the sky is clear enough and if the audience wants, Dobias will invite people to gaze at the stars through the astronomy department’s telescope.
Dr. Stephen Walton, astronomy professor and planetarium director, recently died after fighting liver cancer for one and a half years. Walton received his Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii in 1983 and became a CSUN faculty member in 1987. He specialized in studying the sun and continued to work full-time until this summer, teaching astronomy classes and running the planetarium. The College of Science and Math will hold a memorial service for Walton on Dec. 20.
The planetarium’s centerpiece is the Spitz-512 Star Projector, a metal bowl with a powerful light bulb inside that shines through more than 2,000 tiny holes onto the 40-foot dome. When Dobias, who oversees the planetarium shows and lectures, turns on the $200,000 projector, it projects an impressive rotating star-sky on the ceiling above the audience. The spectators are reclined in burgundy theater seats that all face the front of the hall as to allow for lecture classes.
“This past semester, we’ve sold out almost every show,” Dobias said.
Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” movie franchise, narrates the 38-minute show, which was created in 1999 by the Pittsburgh-based Buhl Planetarium.
General admission is $5 for one show and $8 for both. Students pay $3 and $5. Tickets are sold in the University Student Union ticket office and the proceeds go back to the department.
People who are interested in viewing a planetarium show are advised to buy their tickets ahead of time and not to show up after the show has started.
“I might check it out after finals,” Le said. “(But) I think it’s bad timing on their part.”