No one knows when, or even if, we will discover alien life in the universe or what it might look like. But that hasn't stopped those who are looking from planning on that eventuality, as I discovered when reporting "Ready for Contact," one of the stories in Smithsonian's new special issue, Mysteries of the Universe. These scientists have a plan, and it involves telling everyone about their research and any discovery. "I think there's a big misconception in the public that somehow this is all a cloak-and-dagger operation, and it's not," Arizona State University astrobiologist Paul Davies told me. "People are quite open about what they are doing."
But what will happen after such an announcement is a true mystery. How will the media react, and the public? Will there be mayhem, or will we just yawn? The recent discovery of bacteria that can apparently use arsenic in place of phosphorus, however, has provided an interesting glimpse of what a discovery of alien life portends.
Our story starts on November 29, when NASA announced a December 2 press conference "to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." Almost immediately rumors began to swirl that NASA might have discovered extraterrestrial life itself. The frenzy reached such a point that I even received a press release from a betting web site about the odds they were giving on just what NASA's finding might be. (They placed a 33 percent chance on the discovery of a life form on Mars and a 16 percent chance that NASA would announce that Area 51 had been used for alien studies.) Meanwhile, those of us with embargoed access to the Science study NASA was referring to just groaned—we knew the rumors were all wrong but couldn't say a thing.
After all that, the actual announcement, though interesting, seemed somewhat of a letdown.
But things heated up again shortly thereafter as scientists and bloggers began criticizing the research. One microbiologist summarized the paper as “lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information." They questioned whether the paper was worthy of being published, especially in so prestigious a journal as Science, while others defended the peer review process. And the arguing continues.
If this had been a discovery of alien life, we could probably expect a similar progression of events, only everything would by hyped by a factor of a hundred, at least. Davies, who is associated with the SETI program, which searches for radio signals of alien life, told me, "if there’s a ghost of a chance that a particular radio source is going to turn out to be ET messaging us, the media will be all over it right away." More rumors, more crazy press releases, maybe CNN reporters camped on the scientists' doorsteps. Davies imagines there would be mayhem among the general public, too, with the observatory that made the discovery hounded by people, their computers besieged by hackers. "You could imagine police cordons and even riot police," he said. Who knows how religious leaders would react? And the scientific community would pick apart any discovery, as they are now doing with the arsenic paper.
Scientists in a series of workshops in the early 1990s attempted to determine the social implications of a SETI discovery. “It depends” seems to be their ultimate answer. But people would likely fall into one of two camps, as they have done in the past and do now. The catastrophists predict that the discovery of alien life will result in the end of humanity as we know it, or at least the end of our current culture. But for the “millennial enthusiasts,” as the group named them, “the gloom of the doomsayers is more than offset by the rapture,” they wrote. They see revelations of how to cure cancer, solve the energy crisis or win world peace.
A lot of this would depend on the nature of any discovery, of course. Single-celled life on Mars certainly warrants a different reaction than a message from an intelligent extraterrestrial or a spaceship landing on the White House lawn. In any case, there would be some level of freaking out from the media and, possibly, the public, as the arsenic study has shown.
But for many of us, I think our response would be somewhere in the middle. The discovery of life outside of Earth, while interesting, would hardly negate the need to go to work and earn money, to visit with friends and family, to eat quality chocolate, to do all the things we do every day. That doesn't mean that the search for extraterrestrial life isn't important or won't ever have some impact on the average person. But it won't change us any more than we're changing already.