Hello, out there—Breaking ground by looking up

In the clouds circling Venus, scientists have identified something for which they have no explanation: phosphine, a gas typically made only by living organisms. Astronomers will confirm the detection using two different devices in the near future, according to Nature. Our neighboring planet, considered too harsh to sustain life, has caused us to ask a puzzling question: do we have more to learn about how phosphine is created…or (as some scientists speculate) is this a preliminary finding that suggests life in the Venusian atmosphere?

If you’ve ever looked up at the night sky and wondered if we’re alone, this one’s for you. As we wait for stronger evidence about what phosphine over Venus could mean, here are three voices from the TEDx Universe that can help make the night seem a little less dark.

Keep Your Head Up!

Aomawa Shields: How we’ll find life on other planets

When things go as they should, we never bat an eye. When the day-to-day is a well-oiled machine, time seems to fly by unnoticed. But when something doesn’t quite add up? We’re more discerning. We recognize the inconsistency. We ruminate on the oddity.

And this is exactly how Aomawa Shields predicted that we’d detect extraterrestrial life forms.

“Take the planet Venus. It’s named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, because of its benign, ethereal appearance in the sky. But spacecraft measurements revealed a different story.”

-Dr. Aomawa Shields

In her 2015 TED talk, Dr. Aomawa Shields explained that despite outward appearances, the rocky surface of Venus siphons heat from the sun and roasts everything in sight. Its seemingly exquisite, celestial atmosphere creates a thick barrier, trapping the sun’s rays and blasting them downward, creating a completely inhospitable landscape below. 

But these contradictions, Dr. Shields tells us, are what will lead us to evidence of life on other planets. In 2015, she predicted that we’d probably find alien life forms on distant planets, lightyears away. What if there’s a bigger inconsistency to research right next to Earth?

Friederike Wolff: The rocket science behind asteroid exploration

In a universe so vast, with bounds that are difficult for the mind to immediately conceptualize, space exploration can seem daunting. Expensive. Time-consuming. But for Friederike Wolff—and space engineers like her—understanding outer space is the key to better understanding our existence in the universe.

“Why do we do this? Why do people spend a decade of their lives to explore a space rock? That is because it is in the nature of humans to explore and expand their reach of knowledge.”

-Friederike Wolff

At TEDxTUMSalon2019, Friederike unpacks the journey of MASCOT: the mobility system designed to explore the asteroid Ryugu. She narrates the years of engineering, tenacity, and teamwork it took to steer MASCOT aboard its Japanese mothership, and eventually to Ryugu’s surface. 

Friederike and her team had no idea of what awaited MASCOT on the surface of the asteroid—but charged boldly into this unknown environment despite the challenges. She shows us that by staying true to a common goal and working together efficiently as a team, even a harsh unknown of an extraterrestrial landscape can be explored. Through her years of hard work, Friederike has helped uncover a small bit of the mystery of the night sky.

Paul Salazar: How looking up at the night sky gets us to think deeper

What if we told you that you could go to a party right now…and it would be perfectly safe? You wouldn’t feel the familiar spike of anxiety about getting too close to other people. A face mask is optional. You don’t have to douse your hands, phone, keys, and wallet in disinfectant. Oh, and the best part? There’s nothing illegal or unethical about this kind of party. All you have to do is look up.

Paul Salazar, a sidewalk astronomer and star party connoisseur, guides us through the ways that gazing up to the cosmos can expand one’s mind in his TEDxTUM Dive In talk. As Paul explains, the night sky above serves as a blank canvas on which we can project our curiosities; a chalkboard on which we can scrawl out what we’re wondering.

“And that leads to deeper questions. Why are we here? Are we alone in the universe? How will all of this end?”

-Paul Salazar

In times like these, grouping together to seek meaning in the stars is not the best idea, but Paul’s message still holds: by gazing up in unison from afar, we’re all looking up at the same thing. We’re seeing the same star patterns, under the same sable expanse. In times like these, let’s remember that above all else.