Astrobiologist Carl Pilcher to speak at UCSC on Thursday, April 19

Carl Pilcher

Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, will give the annual Sigma Xi Lecture at UC Santa Cruz on Thursday, April 19. Pilcher's talk, "Studying Life in the Universe," will begin at 8 p.m. in Classroom Unit 1 on the UCSC campus. The event, sponsored by the UCSC chapter of the scientific research society Sigma Xi, is free and open to the public. For more information, call (831) 459-4121.

According to Pilcher, the field of astrobiology was born about a decade ago from a "perfect storm" of scientific developments and discoveries. A deepening understanding of the diversity of life on Earth, the first discoveries of planets around other stars, and a growing appreciation of the nature of extraterrestrial environments in our solar system all contributed to a recognition that the time was right to focus scientific and technological expertise on studying the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. A cross-disciplinary community of researchers has since been created to pursue questions at the interfaces of microbiology, evolutionary biology, paleontology, geochemistry, astronomy, planetary science, and philosophy, to name just a few of the disciplines engaged.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) has played a major role in developing this community. Based at NASA Ames Research Center, NAI is a virtual institute currently comprising 12 U.S. teams with over 600 members and 6 international partner organizations. Pilcher's lecture will discuss the foundations of astrobiology and describe NAI's role in this rapidly developing field.

Pilcher served as senior scientist for astrobiology at NASA headquarters before coming to Ames as NAI director in 2006. He has a B.S. in chemistry from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While still a graduate student, Pilcher led scientific teams that discovered water ice in Saturn's rings and on three of Jupiter's Galilean satellites, including Europa, now a high-priority astrobiology exploration target because of its subsurface liquid water ocean. On receiving his Ph.D., he joined the faculty of the Institute for Astronomy (and later the Department of Physics and Astronomy) at the University of Hawaii, where he discovered and analyzed "weather" on Neptune and participated in the discovery of methane ice on Pluto. He also conducted research on Jupiter's plasma torus and served as a member of the imaging team of NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter. Pilcher has received the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal, numerous Group Achievement Awards, and an Ames Honor Award.