Dr. Emma Bakes

December 19, 2006

SETI Institute Principal Investigator

Emma was born in 1968 in a small coal mining town on the coast of North East England. Inspired by Carl Sagan's TV series, "Cosmos," she pursued an education in science and eventually attended Newcastle University where she studied theoretical physics. Emma went to London University where she earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics. She went on to work in the USA as a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University and became an assistant professor in 1995 at Vassar College, the place where America's first female astronomer, Maria Mitchell, came from.

Emma now works on studying the chemistry and thermodynamics of star-forming regions and the organic chemistry of Titan, Saturn's largest satellite and the early Earth. She finished her first book on astrochemistry in 1997 for Twin Press and has completed her latest book "Introduction to Astrobiology" for Johns Hopkins University Press. She has also contributed to "Women in Space: Careers on the Final Frontier" by Laura Woodmansee. In addition, Emma is writing her third book on the connection between the garments we wear and the laws of physics, entitled "Black Holes, High Heels and a Bullet Proof Vest".

She has been awarded a grant from NASA's Astrophysics Theory Program to study the organic chemistry of macromolecules in the interstellar medium and one from Exobiology to pursue the formation of life bearing molecules in Titan. She is a member of SETI’s NAI Team and is pursuing knowledge of the bridge between chemistry and biology for this effort. She has also Chaired a NASA space mission concept to do in situ sampling of the Kuiper Belt, coordinating a science team from NASA Ames and a propulsion team from JPL. This involved the search for amino acids and other organic molecules in the outer reaches of our Solar System in an effort to connect the origins of life on Earth with the formation of planetary systems from primordial interstellar matter.

She is also branching out into space medicine and along with colleagues from NASA Ames and Stanford University, is developing equipment to maintain bone and muscle density using the force of magnetic repulsion, mitigating musculoskeletal deterioration in microgravity environments. This effort will help humanity to explore and colonize interplanetary space, enabling human travel to Mars and the outer planets.

In her spare time, which isn't much, Emma enjoys weightlifting, running and jeet kune do, a martial art created by Bruce Lee plus bungee jumping and snowboarding. Her heroes include Leonardo da Vinci, Henry Rollins and Bruce Lee. She also does volunteer work at various emergency rooms in the Bay Area to give back to the community in which she lives. Emma's general advice for living is "know what you want, ask the right questions and don't allow others to limit your horizons". Also, don’t harm anyone or take revenge on those who harm you – the universe will settle things without you having to lift a finger.

After decades of study, astrophysicists are still unraveling the mysteries of star formation. To understand this process, Emma Bakes combines theory, astronomical observations, and laboratory measurements to study polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), trace molecules that control the rate of star formation in ambient interstellar regions.  Only a few of these molecules are needed to have a strong effect on the rate of star formation. At a time when most astronomers downplayed the effects of these molecules, and when many even doubted that PAHs existed, Bakes and her colleagues discovered that they play a critical role in stellar formation.


Bakes and her colleague Steve Walch were the first to use quantum chemical techniques to prove unequivocally that in an interstellar environment, amino acids can form on the surfaces of icy dust grains.  Using sophisticated mathematical models, they simulated interstellar space inside computers, concluding that since the building blocks of life may be formed between the stars, life may be permeate our galaxy.  “Life, or at least the building blocks from which it springs, is not rare,” says Bakes, “it is inevitable.”


As Bakes began researching the atmospheres of planets and moons, she realized that PAHs can play an equally important role there. The polycyclics, she discovered, have a powerful effect on the chemistry of Titan’s murky atmosphere, hastening the growth of aerosols, which protect life on planetary surfaces by shielding out harmful radiation. Her model of the evolution of Titan’s atmosphere predicts that these aerosols would remove the hydrogen from its atmosphere very efficiently. A similar process may have taken place on early Earth, providing an essential step to today’s oxygen-rich atmosphere.


Having unlocked some of the secrets of Titan's atmosphere, Bakes turned her attention to a question posed by astronomers Carl Sagan and Bishun Khare two decades earlier: Could the building blocks of life form in a planetary atmosphere and rain down to the planet’s surface?     Drawing on her expertise in quantum chemistry, Bakes showed that complex organic molecules are able to form in the Titan haze, results backed up by the laboratory work of other colleagues at the SETI Institute. She is currently investigating whether these molecules could rain down to the planetary surface and form the building blocks of RNA and DNA. 


- SETI Institute Explorer, Special Edition 2005



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