UVA Engineering Professor’s New Book Explains Our Fascination with “Other Earths”

Last week, astronomers announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Almost immediately, the comparisons and questions began. The newly discovered planet was called “Earth-like.” Could it support life? Could it be a refuge for humans if Earth is ever destroyed?

Lisa Messeri, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, has a few theories about why scientists and others are so quick to transform such celestial bodies into “other Earths.”

“This discovery, more than offering a connection between life-forms, is much more about us connecting with what Earth is, as a place and as our home,” Messeri wrote in an op-ed column entitled What’s So Special About Another Earth?” published in The New York Times after the newest exoplanet was announced. 

Messeri’s conclusions, based on history of science and anthropology research, are detailed in her new book entitled “Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds,” released this summer by Duke University Press.

Messeri shows how scientists transform the void of space into a cosmos filled with worlds that can be known and explored. Making planets into places is central to the daily practices and professional identities of the astronomers, geologists and computer scientists Messeri studies. She takes readers to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah and a NASA research center to discuss ways scientists experience and map Mars.

Messeri also describes how scientists at a Chilean observatory and in labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discover exoplanets and envision what it would be like to inhabit them. Today’s planetary science reveals the universe as densely inhabited by evocative worlds, which in turn tells us more about Earth, ourselves and our place in the universe.

Messeri also was featured in a Wired story about the exoplanet discovery and the hype surrounding its proximity to Earth.