California Institute of Technology

"In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival" —Carl Sagan

Of all the wonderful diversity we experience day to day, there is one thing we all have in common: planet Earth. Mankind has always been curious about our planet—our tiny stage within a vast cosmic arena—and that curiosity extends to searching for similar places in the universe. Exoplanetary science is key to understanding the origin and evolution of the Solar System, allowing us to infer our past and speculate into the future of our planet.

Background

While still in graduate school, Professor Johnson began forming the methods and philosophies that would one day become ExoLab. The Astronomy Learning Center (TALC) at UC Berkeley, still active today, was founded by Johnson and facilitates a cooperative, group learning environment. The success of TALC in using diversity to increase the efficiency and efficacy of student learning within a fun and welcoming environment inspired the creation of the ExoLab upon Johnsonís arrival at Caltech in 2009.

The ExoLab has developed at Caltech over the past year into an active, organic learning environment with the common goal of performing cutting-edge research in exoplanetary science. With unprecedented access to first-rate facilities and a diversity of expertise within the group, ExoLab is pressing forward on many forefronts of our current understanding of planetary systems. These efforts are now being expanded with the development of the first US observatory dedicated to the study of other worlds called MINERVA. This project, spearheaded by Caltech and partner institutions Penn State and the University of Montana, is to be placed atop Palomar Mountain in spring 2013. The primary goal of this observatory will be to expand our knowledge about the nearest Earth-like planets in the Galaxy while maintaining vigorous participation in education and public outreach.

ExoLab is a new expression of the traditional research lab environment, and is more of an ideology than a physical space. In our weekly ExoLab sessions we share our individual progress and brainstorm about new projects. We also pose order-of-magnitude questions related to the field of exoplanetary science, keeping us mentally limber and often generating new approaches to ongoing research. These discussions are not confined to our meetings, but rather continue throughout the week and often expand beyond cross-disciplinary barriers leading to collaborations with Geology, Planetary Science and Aerospace Engineering researchers. This proactive learning environment bypasses the jargon and notation that commonly stifles interdisciplinary communication, making ExoLab a truly unique collaboration.

Mission Statement

To create an active learning and research environment that promotes participation from all members and a healthy interaction among members at all levels both inside and outside of group meetings. This system—known as ExoLab—synthesizes our collective knowledge and expertise across disciplines toward the goal of understanding the origin and evolution of planetary systems in general, and our Solar System in particular.