Astrobiology Chair Steven Dick Discusses Research, Tenure at the Library

(The following is a repost from the Insights: Scholarly Work at the John W. Kluge Center blog. Jason Steinhauer spoke with Steven Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, who concludes his tenure at the Kluge Center this month.)

How the Discovery of Life Will Transform Our Thinking

October 27, 2014 by 

Astrobiology Chair Steven Dick believes that the discovery of life in the universe is a question of when, not if. Such a discovery will take different forms: microbial life, possibly complex life, maybe even intelligent life. Researching the scenarios and investigating the potential outcomes and ramifications has been at the essence of Dick’s year-long residency at the Kluge Center. He sat down with Program Specialist Jason Steinhauer to talk about the nature of discovery, the societal and policy ramifications of discovery, and how he used the Library of Congress collections in his research.

Good morning, Steven, and thanks for being here. Let’s start with this: your tenure as Astrobiology Chair at the Kluge Center is drawing to a close, concluding on November 1. Any thoughts or reflections as your time winds down?

It’s been a fabulous year, beginning with testifying at a Congressional hearing on astrobiology in December, then the astrobiology and theology conversation in June, and finally the big astrobiology symposium in September, “Preparing for Discovery.” While here I’ve worked on both the proceedings of our astrobiology symposium, which will be published as a trade volume by Cambridge University Press, and I’ve finished most of the research for my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Cosmic Encounters: How the Discovery of Life Will Transform Our Thinking.” That’ll also be the subject of my final lecture. It’s been everything I thought it would be and more.

Let’s pick up on the topic of your final lecture: How will the discovery of life beyond Earth transform our thinking?

Well, you always have to set out the scenarios: if it’s microbes that’s one thing, if it’s intelligence that’s another thing. But even if we find single-cell organisms, it has the potential to transform our scientific knowledge. The quest for a universal biology has been one of the big inquiries of science, but it’s hard to have a universal biology or a definition of life when you only have one example-life on Earth. Life on Earth is all carbon-based, relies on DNA as its genetic code, and has water as a solvent. Out in the Solar System and beyond it could be quite different. If we discover a different form of biochemistry or a different kind of genetic code-or a different kind of solvent such as a hydrocarbon as opposed to water-that would be exciting. We’d then have an opportunity to come up with some general rules of biology and a universal biology might be attainable.

So the discovery of something as tiny as a microbe could have a seismic effect.

When we thought we found fossils in a Mars rock in 1996, it had huge effect. So imagine the discovery of living bacteria. When we thought we’d found fossils in 1996, President Clinton expressed interest, there was a symposium convened by Vice President Gore on the subject, and there were Congressional hearings, not to mention the debate in the scientific journals. That’s likely to be what happens when we have a real discovery. As part of my research this past year I’ve looked into the nature of discovery. Discovery is an extended process, which consists of detection, interpretation, and understanding. If and when we discover life beyond Earth, it’s going to be an extended process. By studying the history of past discoveries, we can gain insights into how future discoveries may unfold. It’s the same pattern each time: detection, followed by a long period of interpretation until, ultimately, we understand what it is. It’ll take a period of years to know what we really found.

Would the change in our thinking unfold over a similar extended period?

Absolutely. The impact will take place over a long period of time. I’ve used the analogy of culture contacts, wonderfully documented in the Kislak Collection of the Cultures and History of the Americas here at the Library of Congress, to help in this regard. It’s not a direct analogy, of course, but there are lots of interesting insights uncovered when you examine what Europeans thought the Native Americans would be like, and vice versa. There are subtle lessons: problems in communication, how different brains or minds perceive experiences based on strongly-held cultural beliefs and norms. This analogy more pertains to the potential discovery of intelligent life. I believe we’re much too sanguine about our ability to communicate with any potential intelligent life beyond Earth. But it’s an interesting problem to attempt to transcend anthropocentrism and think more broadly about what might be the landscape of life in the universe. I believe that any discovery we make will be quite surprising.

§ Watch: Steven Dick on doing research in the Library of Congress. Filmed by Feature Story News.

Suppose we discover bacteria at the bottom of a lake on Titan. How do we fit that into our understanding of evolution and natural selection? How do we integrate cosmic evolution into our scientific way of thinking?

Everything in the universe is evolving, and has been since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Biological evolution is one local example of cosmic evolution. We know the universe is evolving physically; we know species evolve biologically; and we know cultures evolve. If the universe is biological and cultures evolve, then you get into the concept of post-biologicals. Maybe biological life is just a passing phase in the universe, and what we’re looking for out there is quite different from biological life? But to your question, I see no reason why evolution by natural selection would not be true elsewhere in the universe. If we found bacteria in a hydrocarbon lake on Titan, a moon of Saturn, I believe it would have evolved under natural selection, which means it will have evolved under the conditions of its natural habitat. We’re searching for a universal biology and we’re looking for principles, and I believe the number one universal biological principle throughout the universe would be natural selection.

And in this hypothetical scenario, if we find microbes on Titan we’d then want to ask what came before it and what comes after it 

Right. We examine how species evolve here on Earth, and that’s what we’d do on another planet. We’d attempt to fit into an evolutionary scheme. That would be a good problem to have!

What are the politics of extraterrestrial life, from your vantage point?

This is more than an academic problem. It has political and societal implications. In both Congressional hearings on astrobiology, Members of Congress asked what do we do if we discover something? There’s been some work on this problem, but not enough, in my opinion. There are some basic planetary protection protocols regarding the microbial situation, but they haven’t gone much beyond that. And there are no protocols for intelligent life beyond “confirm first and then tell everyone.” This is not for a single person to figure out. It would need to be an interdisciplinary group that includes elected officials, scientists, humanists, and theologians. The theological implications would play out for each religion over the course of time. By the way, it seems largely to be western culture that has the preoccupation with life beyond Earth. It’s an interesting question why that is. Eastern cultures do not seem as preoccupied, whereas western scientists and popular culture are consumed by it. Why that is is an interesting research question that I’ve not explored.

How have the Library’s collections aided you while here?

Well, I’ve already spoken about the Kislak Collection. That collection helped lay out the guidelines for the questions we might ask ourselves as we devise these contact and discovery scenarios. They are questions, as opposed to answers, but they are the start of preliminary reconnaissance on this topic. While here I looked at hundreds of books in the Library’s collections, in areas of cultural contact, cognitive science, philosophy and the question of objective knowledge. I’m not an expert in all these areas, but my book will be very broad covering science, history, theology and anthropology. My hope is that the experts will contribute more to this discussion. And of course the Kluge Center makes the access to these wonderful collections possible.

Any final thoughts you wish to add?

Only that I highly recommend the Kluge Center to everybody, and encourage any scholar to apply for the fellowships offered. I’ll add that I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to learn what a vibrant place the Library of Congress is. There are always things going on here, with free talks, concerts, and events happening daily. It’s an intellectually vibrant place and I’ve really enjoyed it.

Steven Dick delivers his final lecture as Astrobiology Chair, “How the Discovery of Life Will Transform Our Thinking,” on Thursday, October 30th at 4 p.m. at The John W. Kluge Center, room LJ-119 of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. The event is free and open to the public.

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