Jenn Macalady '91 Goes Down Into Caves To Look Up Into The Universe

August 23, 2018
By Motherboard

Last spring Jennifer Macalady, a geomicrobiologist, astrobiologist, and professor of geoscience at Penn State University, led a group of radio astronomy students on a caving expedition to learn about how we plan to detect life on other planets. They went into the earth to inform how to look out into the universe.

As an astrobiologist, going down to look up is a paradox Macalady spends a lot of time reflecting on, and it shapes the question she and her colleagues continually ask of their work: If you had to describe life on Earth to someone who’s never been here, what would you say?

Watching her shuffle down the muddy walls of Italy’s Frasassi Caves in Motherboard’s documentary The Most Unknown, it’s easy to see the connection between geomicrobiology and astrobiology. The cave’s surfaces are pockmarked and asteroid-like, hanging in fields of blackness. Shadows cast by her headlamp swing and twist in weird, eerie ways across the rocky surfaces. Specks of dust appear suspended like stars in the lamp’s beams. It looks like another planet—or more accurately, a planet within a planet, where Macalady’s found herself a terranaut exploring where humans don’t typically tread.

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