Carolyn Porco

Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley

Carolyn Porco is a planetary scientist and explorer, and a popular public spokesperson on science, solar system exploration, and the future of humanity. She was the leader of the imaging science team on the Cassini mission at Saturn from 2004 to 2017, and a veteran imaging scientist on the celebrated Voyager mission to the outer solar system in the 1980s.  Asteroid Porco 7231 is named in her honor. She has co-authored over 130 scientific papers in planetary science.

Her personal research over the past 50 years has ranged across the outer solar system to the interstellar medium. Before Cassini’s arrival at Saturn, her research focused on the planetary rings encircling the giant planets and the interactions between rings and orbiting moons. In particular, she was responsible for the discovery of one of the Neptune ring arcs; for elucidating the behavior of the non-axisymmetric rings and ring edges in the rings of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; and co-authoring with Mark Marley (now at LPL at the University of Arizona) a prediction in 1993 that fundamental modes of oscillation within the body of Saturn could produce specific wave features in Saturn’s rings. This prediction was verified 20 years later using Cassini occultation observations, resulting in the first demonstration that planetary rings could serve as a seismograph and provide the means to improve knowledge of a planet’s internal structure.

Among her Imaging Team’s many discoveries at Saturn are the first sightings of lakes and seas of hydrocarbons on Saturn’s largest moon Titan, 100 geysers of frozen mist erupting from a subsurface ocean on Enceladus, previously unknown moons of Saturn, and new phenomena in Saturn’s rings

She has appeared many times in media interviews and TV documentaries. Her popular science writings and Op Eds have been published in such distinguished publications as the London Sunday Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal,Houston Chronicle, Guardian, New Statesman, Arizona Daily Star, Scientific American, American Scientist, and the PBS and BBC websites.

A popular international public speaker, she has presented twice at the renowned TED conference and once at TEDxBerkeley.  In 2008, she opened the unusual, worldwide, multi-media event sponsored by TED known as Pangea Day with a speech illustrating humanity’s cosmic place.

She co-conceived and planned, along with Carl Sagan, the famed Pale Blue Dot picture of Earth from the Voyagerspacecraft, and she was responsible for the Day the Earth Smiled event on July 19, 2013, when another image of the Earth was taken with her cameras at Saturn. During the latter, members of the public all over the globe were invited to take part in a moment of reflection and celebration of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

In 1999, The Sunday Times (London) selected her as one of 18 scientific leaders of the 21st century. In 2008, Wired Magazine chose her for its first list of “Fifteen People the Next President of the United States Should Listen To”, and New Statesman chose her in 2009 as one of “50 People Who Matter Today”.  In 2012, she was named one the “25 Most Influential People in Space” by TIME magazine.  For her scientific accomplishments, she received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011 from her alma mater, Caltech. She has been recognized with Honorary Doctorates of Science from Stony Brook University, Arizona State University, and Monmouth University.

She was a consultant on the main character, Ellie Arroway, for the Warner Bros movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, and she was the science advisor to the 2009 JJ Abrams’ Paramount Pictures film Star Trek.

For her contributions to science and the public sphere, she was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal, presented by the American Astronomical Society for Excellence in the Communication of Science to the Public in 2010, and the inauguralEliza Scidmore Award for Outstanding Science Media by the National Geographic Society in 2018.