Heidi Hammel

Senior Research Scientist, Space Science Institute; Executive Vice President, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

Interstellar— The possibility of life on other planets

Planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel discusses the atmospheric and geological possibilities of alien worlds. Presented as part of the 2019 National Week of Science on Screen.

AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center Silver Spring, MD

Film Synopsis

A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in space in an attempt to ensure humanity's survival.

In Earth's future, a global crop blight and second Dust Bowl are slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a brilliant NASA physicist, is working on plans to save mankind by transporting Earth's population to a new home via a wormhole. But first, Brand must send former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of researchers through the wormhole and across the galaxy to find out which of three planets could be mankind's new home.

Photo courtesy of PHOTOFEST

About the Speaker

Dr. Heidi B. Hammel is a Senior Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. She is an Interdisciplinary Scientist on the James Webb Telescope Project, and her focus is on Webb's theme "Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life." Hammel is a planetary astronomer who has studied our Solar System’s outer planets, and their rings and moons, with the Gemini, Hubble, Keck, Spitzer, and other telescopes.

Hammel has extensive experience with Hubble. She led the Hubble Team that studied the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in July 1994, with a specific focus on Jupiter's atmospheric response to the collisions. She's also an expert on the planet Neptune, and she was a member of the Imaging Science Team for the Voyager 2 encounter with that planet in 1989. Her latest research involves studies of Uranus and Neptune with Hubble and other Earth-based observatories. She also part of a team working to launch a mission to the outer solar system sometime in the next decade.

She received her undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1982 and her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the University of Hawaii in 1988. After a post-doctoral position at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., Hammel returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. She received the 1996 Urey Prize from the American Astronomical Society for her outstanding achievement in planetary science. She joined Space Science Institute in 1998, and now serves as the co-Director of their Research Branch.

Hammel is an award-winning communicator of science, having a unique ability to communicate of a range of levels from kindergarten to post-graduate-school nearly simultaneously. She is especially skilled at translating complex science concepts into easy-to-understand language for general audiences. She also has a strong belief in the value of public education, and believes it is one of the most important things a scientist can do. Hammel won the 2002 Sagan Medal of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences for her outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public, as well as the Public Understanding of Science award from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California.

Her biography “Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel” has been published by the National Academy of Sciences as part of the series “Women’s Adventures in Science.” She was profiled in Newsweek Magazine in 2007.