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Podward State Interviews: Astrophysics Professor Dr. Jason Wright

Podward State met with Jason Wright, Penn State professor of astrophysics, to discuss his research on the discovery of exoplanets, planets of other stars.

Wright is also a major player in the global search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Known as SETI, it’s a been a growing field for decades, and Wright is at the forefront. He’s published multiple papers on the topic, was the recipient of the 2019 Drake Award from the SETI Institute, and was recently profiled in a piece from The New Yorker on new methods of looking for alien civilizations.

Wright discussed Dyson spheres, hypothetical superstructures that can dim the light from distant stars. This off-and-on dimming can be noticed fairly easily by astronomers and one star in particular, Tabby’s Star, caused a media sensation when it was revealed that a Dyson Sphere was perhaps the culprit behind its light oscillation.

First described in sci-fi novels, but later made scientifically possible by physicist Freeman Dyson, a Dyson sphere is a theoretical machine that can be built around a star to harness almost all of its energy output. The confirmation of such advanced technology would all but guarantee the possible existence of another intelligent race in the Milky Way.

While it was later revealed that a thick cloud of cosmic dust was almost certainly the cause of the star’s dimming, this still brought the possibility of such a machine into popular consciousness and helped further drum up the thought of extraterrestrial intelligence in the public eye. Wright helped with the analysis of the Tabby’s Star phenomenon, publishing his own work on it as well as assisting with the original discoverers of the star.

While Wright’s research hasn’t allowed him to search for Dyson Spheres specifically, it’s a field he’d like to explore.

“We’ve barely looked (for Dyson spheres). It’s not something that often gets a lot of support, and I would love to get back to looking for them,” he said.

While not seen as an international space research leader like MIT or California Institute of Technology, Penn State certainly has some noteworthy contributions. Penn State engineers, for example, assisted with the development of the NASA Dragonfly probe, which is set to reach Saturn’s moon Titan in 2034.

Another space-focused program in development at Penn State is the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center. Wright is currently spearheading the project, and serves on its advisory board alongside Penn State President Eric Barron and esteemed astrophysicists like Francis Drake and Dr. Dyson.

The growing relevance of Penn State in the field of astrophysics and astronomy is something that Wright feels proud of, especially with the announcement of PSETI. The opening of this center will provide opportunities for students when it comes to searching for extraterrestrial life and educating the next generation of space pioneers.

The first evidence of other advanced civilizations in the universe might be made by a Nittany Lion.

“Looking five or ten years down the road, I’m really excited that the PSETI center is getting founded because it means that I’ll actually be able to train and advise students and maybe even hire some postdoctoral researchers to get more SETI research done at Penn State,” Wright said.

“And of course, you have to keep your eyes on the prize. We might find something.”

Check out our interview with Dr. Wright on Spotify, along with the Season Two premiere.

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About the Author

Matt Paolizzi

Matt is a junior majoring in Secondary Education and minoring in Philosophy. He's a Philly sports fan, which causes him existential dread on the daily coupled with a deep distaste for the current state of Star Wars. Send him death threats at [email protected] and follow @m_paolizzi on Twitter for a near constant supply of second-hand embarrassment.

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