“Planetary Evangelist” Emily Lakdawalla Speaks to Southern California Association

By Benjamin Purper

Members of the Southern California Association of Phi Beta Kappa received a primer in planetary science on February 11, when science journalist Emily Lakdawalla (ΦBK, Amherst, 1996) gave alumni an informative lecture on the latest developments in space exploration.

Lakdawalla is the senior editor of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization that advocates for space exploration and education on planetary science. It was formed in 1980 by famed scientist Carl Sagan and currently has over 50,000 members from more than 100 different countries.

Wearing a skirt with an image of the Curiosity rover on a Martian landscape, Lakdawalla described important developments in planetary science ranging from the discovery of water on Mars to moons that could support life. She talked at length about two possible candidates for extra-terrestrial life: Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, and Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Both moons have liquid water and geologic activity, making them prime targets for exploration.

“When you have a salt water ocean in contact with hot rock, you have all the necessary ingredients for life,” she said. “So, we do not know if there is life on Europa [or Enceladus], but all of the necessary ingredients are there.”

When asked how students trained in the liberal arts can get involved in planetary science, Lakdawalla said, “First of all, all the planetary scientists that I know are extremely creative people. They’re often very connected with the arts in one way or another. They may be thespians, or musicians, or artists of one kind or another. And they understand the value of storytelling, because geology is always about storytelling about the past of our planet and our solar system.”


“As a person who myself came from a liberal arts background, I find that I use all of it in the work that I do as a planetary scientist,” Lakdawalla said. “So, I think that it’s easy to enter. You just read, you understand the questions that are being asked, and you wow at the beautiful pictures, of the aesthetic value of the images. It’s easy to appreciate it at basically the same level as all the professionals do.”


The event also saw a speech from another prominent Phi Beta Kappa member: the organization’s Secretary and CEO Frederick Lawrence. Lawrence spoke about the Society’s mission as an agent of non-partisan advocacy for the arts and humanities.


“We are engaged in what should be understood as non-partisan advocacy, and that is not an oxymoron. In a highly partisan time, it is very easy to think that all there is is partisan advocacy. We are doing something different,” he said. “Do I have a personal opinion of who I would like to see as the director or the chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities? Of course I do. Phi Beta Kappa does not. That’s what I mean by non-partisan advocacy.”


Lawrence also used the event as an opportunity to honor Carl Cranor, a distinguished Phi Beta Kappa member who won the Society’s Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship in 2014. Cranor, who is a philosophy professor at the University of California, Riverside, gifted Phi Beta Kappa with an endowment to support the Visiting Scholar Program in 2017.


“Carl’s work falls at the intersection of philosophy, science, and law, and is the perfect example, to me, of understanding the world not for an inward look, but for an outward look to understand the world,” Lawrence said.

Cranor’s latest book, Tragic Failures: How and Why We are Harmed by Toxic Chemicals, was released by Oxford University Press last March. Lakdawalla’s forthcoming book, The Design and Engineering of Curiosity: How the Mars Rover Performs Its Job, will be available next month from Springer Praxis Books.

Benjamin Purper graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Redlands in 2017, having majored in international relations with minors in music and Latin American studies. University of Redlands is home to the Xi of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.