How would the world change if we found extraterrestrial

How would the world change if we found
extraterrestrial life?
29 January 2015, by Elizabeth Howell, Astrobiology Magazine
Dick is a former astronomer and historian at the
United States Naval Observatory, a past chief
historian for NASA, and has published several
books concerning the discovery of life beyond
Earth. To Dick, even the discovery of microbes
would be a profound shift for science.
"If we found microbes, it would have an effect on
science, especially biology, by universalizing
biology," he said. "We only have one case of
biology on Earth. It's all related. It's all DNA-based.
If we found an independent example on Mars or
Europa, we have a chance of forming a universal
Elizabeth Howell The ALH84001 meteorite, which in a
1996 Science publication was speculated to be host to
what could be ancient Martian fossils. That finding is still
under dispute today. Credit: NASA/JSC/Stanford
In 1938, Orson Welles narrated a radio broadcast
of "War of the Worlds" as a series of simulated
radio bulletins of what was happening in real time
as Martians arrived on our home planet. The
broadcast is widely remembered for creating public
panic, although to what extent is hotly debated
Still, the incident serves as an illustration of what
could happen when the first life beyond Earth is
discovered. While scientists might be excited by
the prospect, introducing the public, politicians and
interest groups to the idea could take some time.
How extraterrestrial life would change our world
view is a research interest of Steven Dick, who just
completed a term as the Baruch S. Blumberg
NASA/Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology.
The chair is jointly sponsored by the NASA
Astrobiology Program and the John W. Kluge
Center, at the Library of Congress.
Dick points out that even the possibilities of
extraterrestrial fossils could change our viewpoints,
such as the ongoing discussion of ALH84001, a
Martian meteorite found in Antarctica that erupted
into public consciousness in 1996 after a Science
article said structures inside of it could be linked to
biological activity. The conclusion, which is still
debated today, led to congressional hearings.
"I've done a book about discovery in astronomy,
and it's an extended process," Dick pointed out.
"It's not like you point your telescope and say, 'Oh, I
made a discovery.' It's always an extended
process: You have to detect something, you have
to interpret it, and it takes a long time to understand
it. As for extraterrestrial life, the Mars rock showed
it could take an extended period of years to
understand it."
Mayan decipherments
It's also quite possible that the language we receive
across these indirect communications would be
foreign to us. Even though mathematics is often
cited as a universal language, Dick said there are
actually two schools of thought. One theory is that
there is, indeed, one kind of mathematics that is
based on a Platonic idea, and the other theory is
that mathematics is a construction of the culture
that you are in.
If contact with extraterrestrial life is made through radio
telescopes, a decipherment process may have to take
place to understand the message. Credit: NASA
"There will be a decipherment process. It might be
more like the Mayan decipherments," Dick said.
The ethics of contact
In his year at the Library of Congress, Dick spent
time searching for historical examples (as well as
historical analogies) of how humanity might deal
with first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.
History shows that contact with new cultures can go
in vastly different directions.
Hernan Cortes' treatment of the Aztecs is often
cited as an example of how wrong first contact can
go. But there were other efforts that were a little
more mutually beneficial, although the outcomes
were never perfect. Fur traders in Canada in the
1800s worked closely with Native Americans, for
example, and the Chinese treasure fleet of the 15th
Century successfully brought its home culture far
beyond its borders, perhaps even to East Africa.
Even when both sides were trying hard to make
communication work, there were barriers, noted
"The Jesuits had contact with Native Americans,"
he pointed out. "Certain concepts were difficult, like
when they tried to get across the ideas of the soul
and immortality."
Indirect contact by way of radio communications
through the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
(SETI), also illustrates the challenges of
transmitting information across cultures. There is
historical precedence for this, such as when Greek
knowledge passed west through Arab in the 12th
Century. This shows that it is possible for ideas to
be revived, even from dead cultures, he said.
A second look by the Mars Global Surveyor at the socalled Viking “Face on Mars” in Cydonia revealed a
more ordinary-looking hill, showing that science is an
extended process of discovery. Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin
Space Science Systems
As Dick came to a greater understanding about the
potential cultural impact of extraterrestrial
intelligence, he invited other scholars to present
their findings along with him. Dick chaired a twoday NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology
Symposium called "Preparing for Discovery," which
was intended to address the impact of finding any
kind of life beyond Earth, whether microbial or
some kind of intelligent, multicellular life form.
The symposium participants discussed how to
move beyond human-centered views of defining
life, how to understand the philosophical and
theological problems a discovery would bring, and
how to help the public understand the implications
of a discovery.
This story is republished courtesy of NASA's
Astrobiology Magazine. Explore the Earth and
beyond at .
Finding microbes on a moon such as Europa could alter
the culture on Earth, even though they are not
considered intelligent life. Credit: NASA/JPLCaltech/SETI Institute
"There is also the question of what I call astroethics," Dick said. "How do you treat alien life? How
do you treat it differently, ranging from microbes to
intelligence? So we had a philosopher at our
symposium talking about the moral status of nonhuman organisms, talking in relation to animals on
Earth and what their status is in relation to us."
Dick plans to collect the lectures in a book for
publication next year, but he also spent his time at
the library gathering materials for a second book
about how discovering life beyond Earth will
revolutionize our thinking.
"It's very farsighted for NASA to fund a position like
this," Dick added. "They have all their programs in
astrobiology, they fund the scientists, but here they
fund somebody to think about what the implications
might be. It's a good idea to do this, to foresee what
might happen before it occurs."
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February 2015 from
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