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Finding the Next Earth: On TV!


Back in March last year I was contacted by a very interesting person named Dana Berry. The funny thing is that I almost deleted the email before reading it because it was from an AOL email address (AOL?!). Fortunately I got over my email prejudices (have you accepted Gmail into your heart yet?) and opened the message, which read:
Hello Dr. Johnson,

I am producing a show for the National Geographic Channel about the hunt for the next planet Earth as it involves the Kepler and Corot missions, and the plans to characterize these new found worlds with missions like JWST, the upcoming TMT telescope, etc.  We are already in post production, but had sought to get a "pick up" interview with Geoff Marcy.  Alas, he is unavailable.  This was a disappointment since Marcy is so extraordinarily good on camera.

But, Marcy highly recommends you as a potential replacement.  Would you be interested in doing an interview about the follow up to Kepler, and to JWST?  If so, are you available some time in the next day or two to chat on the phone?  

So I wrote back, set up a phone meeting, and we agreed to shoot a piece on or near the Caltech campus a month later in April.

The shoot was supposed to last from 2pm-4pm, maybe as late as 5pm, Dana assured me. Well, we ended up having a grand time moving the camera around Cahill from one interesting shot to the next. By the time we wrapped up it was 10:30pm!

Fortunately, we had my industrious and faithful undergrad researcher, Kirit Karkare, on hand to help out. While they filmed the pieces with me talking while sitting in the Galex control room across the hall from my office (complete with a full space mission control center as a backdrop), Kirit set up the undergrad (Ay105) lab downstairs in the basement. The idea was to show me working in "my lab," but my lab was still in its infancy at the time, with optical components still in their original packaging.

Kirit set up a simple  spectrometer with a light source and a few optics components. While we were showing Dana how the spectrometer works, we accidentally shone the refracted light onto the wall behind us. Dana jumped up and said something like, "Yes, go with that. That's what we need!"

Dana also got excited when I showed him a few Powerpoint slides illustrating how a spectrometer works and showing a false-color echellogram with a spectrum of the Sun (Vesta, actually). He instantly gained my respect when he told the cameraman, "That, that right there is all of astronomy. We like looking at the pictures, but all of the hard science is in spectra! We gotta shoot John pointing at spectral features!" Let me tell you: Dana Berry is a director who really get's it!

Well, I had no idea what would come of our 9-hour day. Would all of that footage end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak? Then, we got word that the show would be on NatGeo (formally the National Geographic Channel) in December. Erin, the boys and I got the popcorn ready and held our own little screening party. "THAT'S DADDY!" yelled Owen. "That's daddy?" asked Marcus. Liz and Lindsay called and exclaimed, "OMG, I can't believe you are in my living room on my TV right now. You sound SO smart!"

If you get to see a rerun, my first appearance is pretty early in, and I get the second segment when they're talking about "super Earths" with molten lava surfaces. From there, they feature my friends and colleagues, including Natalie Batalha, Sara Seager, Oded Aharonson, Francois Fressin and others. There's also an entire segment on my academic grandfather Steve Vogt. It was a HUGE honor to appear on screen with these much more established and accomplished astronomers!


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