The world traveller

Lisa Kaltenegger deals with other planets – and quite successfully at that

March 05, 2014

Researchers now know about the existence of roughly 1,000 exoplanets. Could there be life in one of these distant worlds? Lisa Kaltenegger simulates the conditions and atmospheres of celestial bodies on her computer and draws conclusions from the fingerprints that would reveal a second Earth. Her work has earned her the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize from the German Research Foundation (DFG) plus a million dollars from the Simons Foundation.

At home in higher realms: Lisa Kaltenegger studies the atmosphere on exoplanets. The 36-year-old recently became a member of the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life.

Text: Helmut Hornung

Kuchl lies at the foot of the Hoher Göll, a mountain near Salzburg in Austria. The town is a stronghold of table tennis and has a flourishing wood industry. Lisa Kaltenegger is a big hiking enthusiast, as a child she played table tennis now and again (but was more interested in playing guitar and piano), and her father carves. So from this point of view, she is very well suited to Kuchl, where she was born in 1977. And she always enjoys coming home to the Salzburg region.

Although she travels extensively throughout the world, visiting her family is very important to her. She frequently jets off from Heidelberg, where she leads an Emmy Noether Group at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, to Harvard, where she works as a research associate at the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and back again.

The creative researcher is in demand. Just recently she received one million dollars from the New York-based Simons Foundation. The accolade was not only financially significant. The Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life network, of which the 36-year-old is now a member, includes renowned scientists such as Jack Szostak, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and Britain’s Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. “The prize is a wonderful opportunity to explore the diversity of the new worlds around us,” says Lisa Kaltenegger. “And it is exciting to be a part of this!” You have to listen and take notice, as Kaltenegger speaks quickly, emphatically and with infectious enthusiasm. She is passionate about her subject and punctuates her words with animated gestures.

The seeds for her interest in astronomy were sowed by her physics teacher. She completed her secondary school education of all years in 1995 - the year when researchers found the first exoplanets. But Lisa Kaltenegger has several strings to her bow. She began her academic life by studying interpreting in Graz. At the same time, she also signed up for film and media studies, business administration and technical physics and astronomy. “I wanted to find out what I liked best,” she recalls.

That was tough – and sporty in the literal sense: she cycled between two universities to attend lectures and seminars. “I had to do that in ten minutes,” says Kaltenegger. After the first semester she chose technical physics and astronomy. In doing so, she completely ignored the advice of a careers adviser who believed that a woman would find it very difficult to make it in science.

Signs of life in the light

The discovery of the first planet on a distant star had given astronomy a boost. “But nobody in Austria was working in this area at the end of the 1990s,” says Lisa Kaltenegger, who speaks six languages. So going abroad was an exciting experience for her. The Instituto de Astrofísica de Canaris in Tenerife, the John Hopkins University in Baltimore and the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Dutch town of Noordwijk were among the places she studied. Since 2012, Kaltenegger has been based in Heidelberg with her team and spends around three months of the year in Harvard.

Lisa Kaltenegger researches the celestial bodies that are the most interesting to the search for life: earth-like rocky planets on which water in liquid form could exist. She develops models to study spectral fingerprints of distant exoplanets – traces that leave chemical elements in the light in their atmospheres. She creates the conditions for observations that could one day prove that there is life in these previously unexplored worlds.

And what if such a discovery is ever made? “That would have fascinating social, religious and philosophical implications. It would also give us the opportunity to find out something about the evolution of the Earth, and perhaps even give us an initial insight into our future,” says Kaltenegger. And her enthusiasm is immediately communicated to the listener.

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