Inaugural “STEM for Everyone” lecture searches for extraterrestrial life

By Molly Minturn | February 15, 2023


The Milky Way Galaxy seen over the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array west of Socorro, New Mexico.

The Milky Way Galaxy seen over the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array west of Socorro, New Mexico. (NRAO/AUI/NSF, Jeff Hellerman)

The U.S. military has shot down four aerial objects in recent weeks, most recently an unidentified object over Lake Huron on Sunday. As more attention is being paid to the skies in the wake of these events (as well as after a government report on unidentified aerial phenomena was released in 2021), it might not be considered too “out there” to speculate about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

“I think it is always worthwhile to study things we don’t understand. That is how we make progress toward understanding the universe we live in,” said University of Virginia astronomy professor Kelsey Johnson in a 2021 interview with UVA Today. Johnson is the inaugural speaker in a new popular science lecture series, “STEM for Everyone,” funded by the Charles L. Brown Endowment.

Johnson’s three lectures in the series center on the theme of “Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe.” Her first talk, “Is There Extraterrestrial Life?” will be held on Monday, Feb. 27, from 6-7 p.m. in the Charles L. Brown Science and Engineering Library, Room 133. Johnson’s next lectures in March and April will explore what happens inside black holes and what caused the Big Bang.

“Science is all about curiosity, and thinking about extraterrestrial life is rich ground for asking a huge range of questions,” Johnson said. “I absolutely love talking about and teaching these questions as a hook for inquiry — what forms might extraterrestrial life take? What environments might they need to live? How would they communicate? Would they even want to communicate? Considering these questions also gives us insight into ourselves and our own place in the universe.”

The “STEM for Everyone” lectures are designed for a general undergraduate audience and are open to the public. Refreshments will be provided, and there will be a small reception at the end of the talk. There will also be a prize drawing for attendees (prizes include a signed edition of Johnson’s book, “Constellations for Kids,” which is listed consistently in Amazon’s top 10 children’s astronomy books, as well as a signed art print by Johnson).

Johnson is president of the American Astronomical Society and founding director of the award-winning Dark Skies Bright Kids program. Her TED talk on the importance of dark skies has more than 2 million views and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Scientific American. In the video below, she explains what pulls her towards investigating the unsolved mysteries of the universe with her students.