that tomorrow morning scientists tell the world they've found evidence for a colony
of aliens living only 35 million miles from Earth.
neighbors would wig out - stocking up on Ramen noodles, and secluding
themselves and the family schnauzer in the basement? Or do you believe most
folks would simply mutter "whatever," and go back to checking out new Facebook
question's not altogether fatuous, because this kind of discovery
could happen soon, thanks to the efforts of astrobiologists - researchers
who study the origin, nature and distribution of life.
still haven't found any biological activity elsewhere, it's hardly
inconceivable that before your car gets its next oil change, robot spacecraft could
discover a horde of microbes hidden beneath the Martian sands. Or maybe a few
years down the road, some astrobiology experiment will stumble across alien
pond scum floating in Titan's rime-frosted lakes, or pick up a radio signal
beamed earthward from the
star system Gliese 581.
of such news would be significant and, at this point, largely unknown. So to
get a better grip on how astrobiological discoveries would play out, the SETI
Institute and the NASA Astrobiology Institute recently held a three-day
workshop to bring together scientists, ethicists, historians, lawyers,
anthropologists, and the media to consider the societal consequences of this
type of research.
obvious that three days of conversation is thoroughly inadequate for gauging
the cultural repercussions of astrobiology's wide range of research. So
Margaret Race, the organizer of the event and a scientist at the SETI Institute,
suggested that the forty-and-more participants simply devise a "roadmap" - a
reconnaissance of the issues, if you will. What should we be studying in
this field? As the traveling salesmen in The Music Man insisted,
"you've got to know the territory."
me tell you: the territory is immense, and encompasses such dramatic and
controversial conundrums as protecting ourselves from errant asteroids (is it OK
an incoming rock just enough to keep it from pulverizing your own country but
let it wallop, say, western China?) and dealing with the possibility of
synthetic life, cooked up in a lab (should there be controls on such research?)
even try to survey the field. But I will offer an example that will keep your
brain warm if you ponder it during your ride to work. It's the scenario that
began this short essay, and it will give you some flavor of the type of
problems foreseen by the workshop participants.
like this. As zealous followers of space research know, there's now good
evidence for methane floating above the Martian landscape in several regions of
the planet. Now there are only two straightforward explanations for this gas:
(1) the methane is the consequence of geological activity, such as volcanism,
or (2) it's produced by bacteria-like microbes under the surface. Suppose we
were to discover that biology, not geology, is making the methane. This would
be big news, because after centuries of imaginative speculation, we would
have found real Martians.
consider the long-term problems this would pose. Mars, rather than being a
natural place for humankind to explore and exploit, would take on a different mien.
Suddenly we'd know it has natives.
So what do
we do about that? Some would say, "Hey, these Martians are mindless and
miniscule. We don't worry about earthworms at a building site. We won't worry
about these guys." Of course, samples of this life would be made available for
scientific scrutiny, but that's a different, and short-term, matter. Once the
inhabitants had been cataloged and crated, Mars would be open for business. After
all, isn't it human destiny to spread out? Surely we wouldn't let a messy mass
of microbes interfere with our efforts to colonize the Red Planet.
we? Others might say, "Look, the planet has its own ecosystem. Leave it alone. We'll
turn Mars into a nature preserve." If, like NASA's Chris McKay, you think that
life is special and should be encouraged, you might wish to intervene to give
the indigenous Martian life a helping hand; to let it flourish in a way that's
clearly beyond what it's doing now. In other words, not merely preserve the
Martians' habitat, but improve it.
Those who cotton
to third-way approaches might consider fencing off Mars' inhabited real estate
(assuming that it doesn't lace the entire planet), and limiting human
intrusion. It's unclear, of course, how well this would work, and in any case,
any long-term terraforming project would change the climate in the "Martian
territories" as well as the rest of this world.
would you do? What should humanity do, and how will it decide? And even if
there was some sort of international agreement, who would be tasked with
not easy questions to answer, and the organizers of the workshop thought it
worth getting a head start before the headlines arrive. Consider the reluctance
of Nicolaus Copernicus to publish his work a half-millennium ago. Fearful of
the reaction of religious zealots, he initially did no more than circulate a
small book, without his name on it, outlining his ideas. His magnum opus, De
Revolutionibus Orbeum Coelestium, hit the shelves (and, according to
popular account, his deathbed) much later. Similarly, Charles
Darwin delayed publication of his evolutionary theories, worrying that they
would discomfit readers because humankind would no longer be so exceptional. Societal
reaction can matter.
The fact is
that much of what scientists do won't change your life very much. A lot of it
is like numismatics or canning fruit: specialized activities with only modest cultural
impact. But if we find life of any kind beyond Earth, everyone's going to
notice, and our descendants will be affected in profound ways. Exactly how
they'll be affected deserves our consideration now.