August 21st, 2011
12:57 PM ET

A good planet is hard to find

Editor's note: Lucianne Walkowicz is a Kepler postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley's astronomy department. She spoke last month at the TED global conference in Edinburgh, UK. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through its website.

(CNN) - It was much too late on a Tuesday when a fellow astronomer friend and I found ourselves catching a cab back to Berkeley, having missed the last train home. My friend promptly dozed off in the taxi, leaving me to chat with our driver - who wondered how we could be out so late with jobs to go to in the morning.

I explained that we were astronomers, and naturally tended to be night owls (although I added that my now-snoring friend was a theorist and therefore accustomed to a more regular schedule). "Astronomers!" Our driver immediately began to pepper me with questions about the universe, and so I launched into telling him about my work. Think of it as "Astronomy 101: Wee Hours of the Morning Edition."

One of the wonderful things about astronomy is that it's a very accessible science - in principle the sky is available to everyone. Although one's access to the sky may vary due to light pollution or outdoor space, most people have wondered what lies in that great beyond - and nowhere is that more true than in the search for planets outside our own solar system. Hard to believe, but it's only been a little over 20 years since the first planets were found orbiting other stars, and though astronomers have found several hundred planets during that time, it's been painstaking, hard-scrabble work.

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