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Br. Robert Novak To Present 100th Bullen Lecture

Br. Robert Novak
NEW ROCHELLE, NY - Br. Robert Novak, Ph.D., professor of physics at Iona College will be the 100th speaker in the Thomas G. Bullen, Ph.D., CFC, Memorial Lecture Series in Science and Technology. Br. Novak will speak at Christopher J. Murphy Auditorium on Thursday, November 30, at noon. His lecture is titled "The Astronomical Search for Aliens on Mars." It is free and open to the public.
Br. Novak joined the Congregation of Christian Brothers in 1967. After graduating from Iona College with a BS in physics in 1972, he taught at Catholic high schools in Newark, New Jersey, and Staten Island, New York. In 1976, after finishing an MS in physics from Stevens Institute of Technology, he became a part-time instructor at Iona College and pursued a Ph.D. in physics from Columbia University. At Columbia, he studied laser induced alkali-noble gas excimer molecules by using infrared spectroscopy. His mentor was professor William Happer. He completed his Ph.D. in 1980 and since then, has been a full-time faculty member at Iona College.  After teaching for seven years and completing his advancement towards tenure, Br. Novak spent a year’s sabbatical at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where he studied the laser destruction of gall stones.
Since 1996, Br. Novak has collaborated with the astrobiology group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The group studies the composition of comets and the atmosphere of Mars using ground-based telescopes. He has been a visiting astronomer at NASA’s infrared telescope on the big island of Hawaii since 1997. Between 1997 and 2008 he visited the telescope more than twenty times. However, since then, he has remotely participated in observing runs at the NASA-IRTF using computers at Iona College. Br. Novak has been the author or co-author on over forty scientific publications. He was part of the team that identified methane in Mars’ atmosphere.
Br. Novak has been the principal investigator on more than $500,000 in government grants from both NASA and the National Science Foundation. With these grants, he has been able to conduct the investigation of the atmosphere of Mars with students and has incorporated that study into the courses he teaches. In addition to his research and teaching, he has been very active with Iona’s alumni association and its intercollegiate rowing programs.
The Bullen Lecture Series began as Scientific and Technological Lecture Series and founded in 1989 by Victor Stanionis, Ph.D., professor of physics at Iona College. Its purpose was to instill a measure of scientific awareness in Iona’s science, liberal arts, business students and the public so they may confront scientific issues as informed citizens. A secondary purpose of the series was to bring them into contact with scientists who have achieved at the highest levels in their fields. The series was renamed to honor Br. Thomas G. Bullen, Ph.D., who was a legend in the Science departments at Iona College, and it became known as the Thomas G. Bullen, CFC, Ph.D., Memorial Lecture Series in Science and Technology. Presently the series is sponsored by the Josephine Lawrence Hopkins Foundation. Read more on the Bullen series.
Br. Novak's lecture is the second of the 2017-18 academic year. One of the questions pondered by thinkers for thousands of years has been “Does life exist outside of the Earth?” From studying life on Earth, a set of conditions - such as the presence of liquid water, an energy source used by life, and a protective shield from space radiation - has been determined as being necessary conditions for life. If these conditions exist on another object in space, then that object can possibly harbor life. Within our solar system, Jupiter’s moon Io, Saturn’s moon Titan, and the planet Mars have been candidates in the search for life in space.
In his collaboration with NASA, the astrobiology group, headed by Dr. Michael Mumma, has been studying the composition of comets and the atmosphere of Mars by using infrared spectrographs attached to large telescopes. The current study of Mars began by telescopic observations of ozone and water vapor in its atmosphere. The atmospheric density of these gases varies considerably with respect to latitude, time of day or night, and season. For life, ozone is needed to protect the planet’s surface from ultraviolet light, and liquid water is needed for life.
This study has been expanded to include other gases. In the process of studying heavy water (HDO), there were indications that methane exists on Mars. In the pursuit of studying methane, previously undiscovered absorption bands of isotopic forms of carbon dioxide were found. The finding of methane led to a paper published in the Journal Science in 2009. The paper was very controversial, but the presence of methane was later confirmed by the Mars Curiosity Rover. The question now posed is what is the origin of the methane? On Earth, most atmospheric methane originates from life. Is the source of methane on Mars biological, or is it geological?
The telescopic search for these gases on Mars will be presented. With new instrumentation, the question of the origin of methane could be determined. Plus, the study of life on Earth has given us new conditions needed for life. These conditions might exist on Mars, and likewise, so can life exist on Mars. Various scenarios will be discussed, and their implications may change our own view of life on Earth.
Founded in 1940, Iona College is a four-year private coeducational institution of learning in the tradition of the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers and American Catholic higher education, located just 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan in New Rochelle. With a global network of more than 45,000 alumni, Iona is a diverse community of learners and scholars dedicated to academic excellence and the values of justice, peace and service. Iona offers undergraduate degrees in liberal arts, science and business administration, pre-professional and professional programs, Master of Arts, Master of Science and Business Administration degrees, and numerous advanced certificate programs. The College is the second-largest private sector employer in New Rochelle and provides more than 66,000 service hours in the community each year. Studies indicate the College also has an annual economic impact of $258 million as measured by the NY Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU). See more at