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History, Discovery and Analogy: Steven Dick Talks with C-SPAN’s American History TV About Discovering Life in the Universe

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In a new video interview with C-SPAN’s American History TV, Kluge Center astrobiology chair Steven Dick explains how history, discovery, and analogy may be useful frameworks for approaching the problem of what societal reactions may be to the discovery of life beyond Earth.

Dick has spent the past year at the Library of Congress as the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, researching a new book on preparing for discovery. Tracing incidents of discoveries and cultural contacts in various moments throughout human history, Dick says these past incidents may illuminate what contemporary reactions could be to any discovery of microbial or complex life on planets or moons in our solar system or a distant exoplanet. History, discovery, and analogy–though not predictive–may be instructive in understanding how humanity may react to the discoveries that astrobiologists may make.

Screenshot of interview with Steven Dick on C-SPAN3's American History TV, September 15, 2014.
Screenshot of interview with Steven Dick on C-SPAN3’s American History TV, September 15, 2014. Source:

In the interview, Dick recapitulates the 1835 “moon hoax” propagated by The New York Sun as one historical example. The paper claimed that famous astronomer John Herschel had discovered life on the moon, which set off an ensuing frenzy. Dick also reminds that discovery, and confirmation of what has been discovered, will be a prolonged scientific process, as opposed to the instantaneous “eureka” moment that we may imagine. Finally, Dick explores whether discovery scenarios depicted by science fiction may be useful–in particular those imagined scenarios in which discoveries made by scientists are swiftly taken out of their hands by government, the military, and the media. Dick details the Library of Congress collections that have aided his research, including the Jay I. Kislak Collection of early American history materials, which depicts cultural contacts between the Americas and European explorers; the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division that contains prints of the 1835 moon hoax; and the Carl Sagan papers, which include notes on Sagan’s writing of the novel and movie “Contact.”

Watch the interview at:

The interview is part of a series of five interviews American History TV conducted with Kluge scholars at the Library of Congress about their research. The next interview with Kluge Fellow Joseph Genetin-Pilawa airs Saturday, October 4 at 3:30pm ET.

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