What If We Do Find Extraterrestrial Life?

A public symposium in Washington D.C. will take up this provocative topic.

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In mid-September, NASA and the Library of Congress will hold a free, two-day symposium on Astrobiology and Society in Washington D.C. to consider how we should prepare for the discovery of extraterrestrial life—not just microbial life, but perhaps complex and intelligent life as well. The fact that this topic is being discussed at the Library of Congress suggests that it’s no longer considered an unlikely pipe dream, but rather something that should be taken seriously by government institutions.

Discoveries in the last few decades led to this change of view. Scientists have found extremophilic life in environmental niches previously considered impossible for life to thrive in. The number of known exoplanets now stands at more than 1,000 and counting. Some of these are Earth-size, some are potentially habitable, and some are both. Data from spacecraft and planetary rovers indicate habitable conditions not only on Mars, but on a number of moons in the outer solar system.

With these developments in mind, Steven J. Dick, who holds the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, decided to assemble selected scientists, philosophers, historians, and theologians from around the world to explore how society can prepare for the discovery of extraterrestrial life and what this means to our understanding of life and our place in the universe.

The preliminary program is extremely exciting. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute will talk about current approaches to finding life beyond Earth, and what happens if we do. Philosopher Clément Vidal will speak about the possible discovery of non-communicative extraterrestrials, while the SETI Institute’s Doug Vakoch will share his insights on how we can communicate with extraterrestrials.

I will speak about the “landscape of life”—what types of life might be possible on different levels of complexity—while neuroscientist Lori Marino will talk about the landscape of intelligence. Philosopher Carol Cleland and political scientist Elspeth Wilson will speculate on the moral status of non-human organisms, and Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory will address the provocative question of whether you could (or perhaps should?) baptize an extraterrestrial. Margaret Race of the SETI Institute will consider potential risks in discovering life beyond Earth. 

We scientists in the field of astrobiology are often preoccupied just trying to find life beyond Earth. But what happens if we actually do? I’m looking forward to a lively discussion in September.

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