In 1960, the astrophysicist Francis Drake pointed a radio telescope situated in Green Bank, West Virginia, in the direction of two Sun-like stars 11 light years away. His faith: to pick up a signal that would verify gifted life might be out there. Fifty years have departed by since Drake’s pioneering SETI experiment, and we’ve yet to perceive the aliens. But because of a host of discoveries, the idea that life might survive outside Earth now appears more believable than ever. For one, we now know that life can flourish in the most extreme surroundings here on Earth — from deep-sea methane seep and Antarctic sea ice to acidic rivers and our thirstiest deserts.
We’ve also discovered that liquid water isn’t exclusive to our planet. Saturn’s moon “Enceladus” and Jupiter’s moons “Ganymede” and “Europa” have large oceans underneath their icy surfaces. Even Saturn’s largest moon “Titan” could seed some kind of life in its lakes and rivers of methane-ethane. And then there’s the finding of exo-planets, with more than 1800 alien worlds outside our Solar System recognized so far. In fact, astrophysicists think there may be a million and millions of planets in our galaxy alone, one-fifth of which may be like Earth. As Carl Sagan excellently said: “The Universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
Now some researchers trust the hunt for life outside Earth may well repay in our lifespan. “There have been 10K generations of humans before us. Ours could be the first to know,” said SETI astrophysicist Seth Shostak.
But what can occur once we do? How would we deal with the discovery? And what would be its influence on humanity? This overwhelming question was the focus of a meeting organized last September by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Library of Congress. For two days, a group of researchers, historians, philosophers and theologians from round the world discussed how we might prepare for the preordained discovery of life — microbial or intelligent — somewhere else in our Universe. The conference was hosted by Steven J. Dick, the 2nd yearly Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress.
Of course, the influence of discovery will rest on on the specific situation. In a talk titled “Current Approaches to Finding Life Beyond Earth, and What Happens If We Do,” Shostak proposed three ways — or three “horse races” — for discovering life in space. First, we could discover it close, in our Solar System. NASA’s Curiosity Rover is at present studying the Martian surface for clues of past or present life. And “Europa Clipper”, a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon, is now under attention. Second, we could “discover it out” of the atmosphere of an exo-planet, using telescopes to look for gases such as methane and oxygen that might clue at a biosphere. The James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, will be able to carry out that kind of work.
Discovering life in our Solar System, which possibly would be microbial, might not have as great an impression as hearing from an intellectual civilization far away. We’d have to worry about matters like contamination. We might also find some different biochemistry, maybe exposing new visions about the nature of life. But that type of finding wouldn’t affect us as much as the view of communicating with intellectual life.
Then again it would take hundreds, if not thousands of years for a signal to mobile from side to side, Shostak mentioned. So that third situation would only show us a very few things immediately, such as their locality or what type of star they orbit. However, picking a signal might have other tempting implications about the nature of alien intellect.
Several scientists, including Shostak, put forward the following proposition: “That once a society creates the technology that could put them in touch with the cosmos, they are only a few hundred years away from changing their paradigm from biology to artificial intelligence.” The knowledge is based on the so-called “time scale argument” or “short window observation.” Many scientists forecast we’ll have industrialized a strong A.I by 2050 here on Earth — about a hundred years after the creation of computers, or a hundred and fifty years after the creation of radio connectio. “The point is that, going from creating radios to devising thinking machines is very short — a few centuries at most,” Shostak said. “The leading intelligence in the cosmos may well be non-biological.”
In a talk titled “Alien Minds,” Susan Schneider, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut, explained that idea further. The idea of “whole brain emulation” is becoming gradually general among certain scientists, she explained. So are other unbelievable sounding ideas like “mind uploading” and “immortally.” So, to her, a civilization able to radio communicate would probably be “super-intelligent” by the time we hear from them.
According to the “short window observation” concept, a civilization talented of radio communication would possibly have established artificial intelligence by the time we hear from them. She also claimed that alien super-intelligence would be sensible in principle, since the neural code is similar to a computational code, and thoughts could well be inserted in a silicon-based substrate. A silicon-based intelligence would also have wonderful effects for long distance space travel. But again, a repeated theme throughout the conference was to be alert of our anthropocentric tendencies. There’s been a vast gap between microbial life and intelligent life on Earth, and even intelligent life has even progressed on a spectrum.
Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and current director of the Kimela Center for Animal Advocacy, debated as such in a talked titled “The Landscape of Intelligence.” We have a lot to study from other intelligent beings here on Earth (such as dolphins) before even thinking about contacting aliens.
Eventually, the utmost implications might be philosophical. Whether it turns out to be microbial, compound or intelligent, finding life somewhere else will increase fascinating questions about our place in the cosmos. A couple of presentations, by theologian Robin Lovin and Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, even spoke the potential influence on the world’s religions. But what if we don’t find anything soon, or even at all?
The hunt itself can give us a sense of direction, and help us furnace a planetary characteristics, argued the philosopher Clement Vidal in a talk titled “Silent Impact.” And if we’re really alone, then we should start taking good care of life here on Earth, and consider our duty of colonization, he added. The hunt itself can help us forge a planetary identity, said philosopher Clement Vidal. In the interim, astrobiology can help thin the gap among the sciences and humanities, as many presenters highlighted. And it can be a step to incorporating our knowledge across a wide range of disciplines.
So, how do we get ready for something we know so little about? We do so “by on-going to do good science, but also by understanding that science is not metaphysically neutral,” finished the conference host Steven Dick. “We get ready by continuing to question our suppositions about the nature of life and intelligence.”