At a joint symposium between NASA and the Library of Congress, scientists and scholars asked how we can prepare for contact with aliens
It’s been more than 50 years since the earliest SETI experiments were conducted by astronomer Francis Drake (in 1960). Drake pointed a radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia toward two stars similar to our sun located 11 light years away, hoping to pick up a signal that would prove the existence of intelligent life in the universe. Fifty-plus years on, however, we have yet to hear from aliens.
But a host of discoveries since then indicate that it’s not only possible but highly likely that life could exist in the universe beyond Earth. For starters, we’ve discovered that life can exist in the most extreme conditions on this planet, from deep-sea methane seep to Antarctic sea ice to the world’s driest deserts. We’ve also learned that liquid water isn’t unique to Earth—Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moons Ganymede and Europa contain large oceans beneath their icy surfaces. And with the identification of more than 1,800 exoplanets beyond our solar system so far, we’re finding out just how astute Carl Sagan was when he famously stated that “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
Now the possibility of contacting alien life in our lifetime seems to be higher than ever.
“There have been 10,000 generations of humans before us. Ours could be the first to know,” said SETI astronomer Seth Shostak.
Shostak was one of the presenters at a conference held in September that was organized by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Library of Congress. The conference brought together an international group of scientists, historians, philosophers and theologians to explore how we can prepare for the inevitable discovery of alien life elsewhere in the universe.
In a talk titled “Current Approaches to Finding Life Beyond Earth, and What Happens if We Do,” Shostak maintained that the impact of contact will depend on the specific scenario. He outlined three ways of finding life in space.
The first would be discovering it in our solar system. NASA’s Curiosity Rover is currently surveying the surface of Mars for signs of life, both past and present, and a similar mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is currently under consideration. We could also “sniff out” the atmosphere of an exoplanet using telescopes to look for gases such as methane and oxygen that would hint at a biosphere—and the James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, is intended to carry out just that kind of work. Finally, we can continue to follow the SETI work pioneered by Frank Drake in hopes that it would yield verifying results.
Life in our solar system is most likely microbial. We could potentially discover alternative biochemistry and perhaps learn new insights about the nature of life, but it would not have as great an impact as discovering intelligent life or contacting a distant civilization. Plus, as Shostak pointed out, it takes hundreds—if not thousands—of years for a radio signal to travel back and forth. So the third scenario would only teach us about the location of intelligent life or what kind of star their civilization orbits, and not much else.
Shostak, along with several other researchers, put forward the premise that “once a society creates the technology that could put them in touch with the cosmos, they’re only a few hundred years away from changing their paradigm from biology to artificial intelligence.”
This premise is based on the so-called “time scale argument” or “short window observation.” Many researchers already predict that we’ll develop strong artificial intelligence here on Earth by 2050. That’s about a hundred years after the invention of computers, and a hundred and fifty years after the invention of radio communication.
“The point is that going from inventing radios to inventing thinking machines is very short—a few centuries at most,” Shostak said. “The dominant intelligence in the cosmos may well be non-biological.”
The idea was explored even further by Susan Schneider, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. In a talk titled “Alien Minds,” Schneider explained that the concept of “whole brain emulation” is becoming increasingly popular among researchers, along with other sci fi concepts like “mind uploading” and “immortality.” According to Schneider, a civilization capable of radio communication would likely be “super-intelligent” by the time we would make contact.
Schneider also argued that alien super-intelligence would be conscious in principle. Thought could likely be embedded in a silicon-based substrate since the neural code is akin to a computational code. Silicon-based intelligence would also have massive implications for long distance space travel.
But a recurring theme throughout the conference was that we must remain aware of our anthropocentric tendencies. In a talk entitled “The Landscape of Intelligence,” neuroscientist and head of the Kimela Center for Animal Advocacy Lori Marino argued that we have a lot to learn from intelligent beings on Earth (such as whales and dolphins) before we can even begin to think about communicating with aliens.
The greatest implications of discovering life beyond Earth would likely be philosophical. Whether finding life in the universe that turns out to be microbial or intelligent, the discovery itself will raise serious questions about our place in the cosmos. A couple of presentations—one by theologian Robin Lovin and the other by Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno—examined the spiritual impact of the discovery of life beyond Earth and even addressed the effect it would have on the worlds’ religions.
But what if we don’t find anything soon—or nothing at all? What if we truly are alone in the universe?
Philosopher Clement Vidal maintained that the search itself can give us a sense of direction and help us define planetary identity. If we truly are alone, Vidal added, then we need to start taking better care of life on Earth and contemplate our duty of space colonization.
Many of the presenters recognized that the question of life beyond Earth necessitates narrowing the gap between science and the humanities. The field of astrobiology could take us a long way toward integrating our collective knowledge across a wide variety of disciplines.
You can listen to all of the talks from the NASA/Library of Congress joint symposium on astrobiology here.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons.)