I won’t attempt to summarize the entire event here. The conference proceedings will eventually be published as a volume, and the full webcast will be available on the Library of Congress and the NASA Astrobiology Institute websites soon.
I will say, however, that everyone I spoke to left the conference having been fundamentally challenged in some way, and that a full 24 hours later, sitting in pleasant sunshine on a Saturday afternoon, I was still thinking about conference themes.
I’ve heard this on several occasions, yet it still leaves me amazed: scientific estimates indicate that there are over a thousand confirmed exoplanets in the universe, and likely thousands more. Many of these planets are positioned in such a way as to be conducive to the possible flourishing of life, microbial and otherwise. From this starting point, the symposium participants spoke on a wide range of issues including the nature and diverse manifestations of intelligence across the spectrum of life, and the degree to which biological laws can or cannot be universalized. One participant detailed the vast variety of potentially habitable environments on Earth and other planets, discussing life-sustaining ranges in temperature, radiation, and pressure. Other panelists discussed representations of extra-terrestrial life in science fiction and highlighted the cultural and linguistic norms that influence how we think about the search for life. Risk management and the protocols necessary to ensure the safe-handling of materials retrieved from other planets were also discussed.
Exemplary of the Kluge Center’s mission to gather outstanding scholars from all over the world, the conference presenters ranged from post-doctoral fellows to professors emeritus. They represented institutions including government, research universities, and religiously affiliated organizations, and spanned the full spectrum of disciplines from physics to philosophy, evolutionary biology to ecology, chemistry to literature and the arts.
Discussions on the nature of the cosmos have always held the potential to challenge conventional beliefs and generate strong opinions. Steven Dick, historian of science, symposium organizer, and second Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology knows this well. One of the chapters in his book “Plurality of Worlds, the Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate,” recapitulates the saga of Giordano Bruno, an Italian friar burned at the stake in 1600. Bruno had been a subject of the Inquisition for several years prior. He was ultimately tried and found guilty on the basis of many perceived heresies, including beliefs about the nature of God and of Christ. Most interesting about Bruno, however, from the astrobiology perspective, was that he was an early proponent of the idea that the Earth need not be the only planet in the universe and that many others could have similar characteristics.
Over four hundred years later, as scientific discoveries continue to confirm what Bruno had intuited, debate at the Library of Congress, on matters vital to how we understand our role in the cosmos, was characterized last week by a spirit of curiosity, civility, and respect. We look forward to fostering more dialogues of this kind in the years to come.