The astrophysicist Michaël Gillon reports on a newly discovered planetary system and his search for habitable exoplanets in space, opens up about his path to science and the big scientific questions that keep him up at night.

Who are you and what is your profession?

My name is Michaël Gillon. I am FRNS Research Director and astrophysicist at the University of Liege, Belgium. My field of research is exoplanetology, the detection and study of planets in orbit around other stars than the Sun.

What are you currently working on?

Most of my research time is dedicated to two projects. The first one is called SPECULOOS, a search for potentially habitable exoplanets in orbit around nearby very-low-mass stars. The second one is the study of the seven planets that my team and I found in 2017 around a nearby small star with the prototype of SPECULOOS. This planetary system is called TRAPPIST-1. It hosts seven Earth-sized planets, 3 to 4 of which are potentially habitable, and they are all uniquely well-suited for a detailed atmospheric characterization with the new space telescope JWST. My colleagues and I want to use JWST to determine if these seven planets harbour atmospheres and if so, what are their compositions and do some of them show chemical traces of biological activity. If we could show that life exists out there, our vision of the Cosmos would change forever.

Which trend will influence your work the most?

As a scientist, I’m of course influenced by the work and results of other scientists. But I’m also deeply driven by my sheer curiosity. Since I was a kid, I have always wanted to know if there is life elsewhere in the Universe, and this question has always been the main driver of my work.

What excites you most about your work?

That it’s not work, but passion – Every morning, I feel extremely lucky to hunt for and study strange alien worlds for a living. This is a kid’s dream come true, and I’ve never felt it to be a job.

Who would you like to work with someday?

Nobody really, as I already work with some of the best exoplanet experts on Earth.

What keeps you awake at night?

Big scientific questions like ‘are we alone in the Universe?’, ‘Are there some more advanced civilizations out there, and if so, are some of them observing us?’,
‘how did life emerge on Earth?’, but also some more metaphysical questions like ‘is our Universe infinite, and is there an infinity of other Universes?’, ‘is there really an absolute reality?’, etc. And sometimes I stay awake at night for more mundane reasons like the bills I have to pay or the family things I have to take care of.

What is your part in this year’s 7th Berlin Science Week?

I will give a lecture on exoplanets with Prof. Heike Rauer from DLR Berlin at the Belgian Embassy on 3 NOV. My part will of be focused on SPECULOOS, TRAPPIST-1, and the hunt for potentially habitable planets around very-low-mass stars, while Prof Rauer will present PLATO, the next major exoplanet space mission PLATO due to launch in 2026.

Why Berlin Science Week?

Because Berlin Science Week is one of the most prestigious scientific outreach events in Europe and it’s an honour for me to have been invited to participate. I find it very important for scientists to share their passion and knowledge with the public, especially the younger ones, as science is an amazing source of inspiration and curiosity.

What is your favourite spot in Berlin?

I’ve always found the Brandenburg Gate magnificent.

Which newsletter(s) have you subscribed to? / What are you currently reading?

I used to read a lot of scientific books and papers and science-fiction novels. But as my career has progressed, my free time has shrunk and I don’t read as much as before. I’m now reading a Dutch textbook. Indeed, Dutch is one of the two main official languages of Belgium, and I feel a bit ashamed to not master it better…

Is there a takeaway from the pandemic that you would like to share? Has anything changed in your daily routine?

Teleworking can be very efficient, but the pandemic reminded me also that we, Humans, are social animals, and that we strongly need face-to-face relationships. So now, for economic and ecological reasons, I tend to add a bit of teleworking to my routine, but not too much 🙂

Tell us a fun or unknown fact about you!

As a teenager, I was not a very motivated student, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living. I considered plenty of jobs like a jet pilot, actor, comics cartoonist, biochemist, video club manager, etc. At the end of my high school studies, I was still searching for my vocation, and as I liked to do sports, I decided to join the Belgian army as an infantry soldier to see what happens. After several years in the Army, including four months in ex-Yougoslavia as UN Blue Helmet, I developed a disease of the nervous system (fibromyalgia) that made me unfit to my military duties. I then started to read a lot and developed a strong taste for science. At the age of 24, I was finally discharged from the Army on medical grounds, and I started science studies at the University of Liege. And then I started my scientific career… Now, my fibromyalgia is under control, and I do the best job ever.

In the future, you would like to…

contribute to answering the question ‘is there life elsewhere in the Universe?’

PS: What is the most delicious thing you ate this week?

Liege meatballs with Belgian fries and a tasty Trappist beer 🙂 You must know that Belgium is small but full of good things to eat and drink. Our chocolates, our fries, and our beers are the best in the world!

Michaël Gillon is the project leader of SPECULOOS, a project led by the University of Liège, Belgium and carried out in partnership with the University of Cambridge, UK the University of Birmingham, UK the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US the University of Bern, Switzerland, the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics, Spain and the European Southern Observatory.

Michaël Gillon presented his work at the event “Searching for Habitable Worlds around Nearby very low-mass Stars“, which was organized by Wallonie-Bruxelles International and the Embassy of Belgium in Berlin and took place on 3 Nov at the Berlin Science Week 2022.