Fourteen miles outside Aspen, as the rental car flies, there are two hump-backed mountains measuring more than 14,000 feet each. They can be seen from a small neighboring valley, from the shores of a shallow lake, whose smooth waters carry an inverted image of the snow-striped peaks. Called the Maroon Bells, for the way they light up red at dawn, the pair are said to be the most-photographed in Colorado, a state with no shortage of sublime scenery.
Yesterday, I made the pilgrimage to see the Maroon Bells with Lisa Kaltenegger, a professor of astronomy at Cornell. Earlier in the day Kaltenegger had appeared on a number of panel discussions co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. The Director of Cornell’s Carl Sagan Institute, Kaltenegger spent most of her stage time talking about planets in distant star systems, and the possibility that some of them play host to life. Kaltenegger is accustomed to making this pitch. Her institute was founded to research “biosignatures,” telltale signs of life that can be seen through telescopes, from tens of trillions of miles away. (An abundance of oxygen and methane could, for instance, indicate the presence of living, breathing organisms.) Like many astronomers, she is hopeful that such signatures will be glimpsed around nearby stars within the next decade.