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On Microbes and Planets: Our Second Astrobiology Symposium Recapped

Second Annual Astrobiology Symposium

A view of the second annual astrobiology symposium hosted by The John W. Kluge Center, September 18, 2014. Photo by Travis Hensley.

Last week’s astrobiology symposium, a part of our NASA/Library of Congress astrobiology program, was a feast of ideas and perspectives.

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.


  1. Amy Meyer
    September 23, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Glad to know there are smart thoughtful people gathering to discuss this. Makes me want to go watch Cosmos!

  2. Dr Ragbir Bhathal
    September 25, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    Congratulations to Dick for keeping the debate on ET life alive. I hope to listen to the proceedings and read the papers when they are published. I have been running the only optical SETI project in southern hemisphere since 2000. Not a word from ET. As Karl Gauss wrote, a signal from ET, will greater than the discovery of America!. Pity he did not know that Australia existed.
    Dr Ragbir Bhathal

  3. Giorgio Piacenza
    September 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Yes, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would likely encourage human society to think anew and/or more deeply and expansively about science, culture, life, theology, civilization. Therefore, it is important to start having these conversations to prepare society for the various implications of discovering extraterrestrial life which might formally occur under conventional means any time soon. The conversation at Kluge Center was respectful and open to many ideas, although most speakers coming from a conventional academic (and definitely also very valuable) standpoint were clearly unaware of the best objective evidence that a small percentage of serious UFO cases and alleged human interaction cases indeed have more scientific validity indicating that ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) may indeed be interacting with us in ways that our current science doesn’t normally fathom.

    While quite often there are extremes of gullibility and over generalizing mistakes among those who think that we are being contacted and those that do not (the latter often adopting a committed skepticism), the conversation must continue amply without mutual animosity or offhanded dismissals.

    The best UFO and “experiencer” evidence seen with a neutral attitude is reasonably convincing that we are being “visited” or interacted with and there also are good reasons to doubt about the unscientific stance of many that are so convinced. But the issue is of planetary and cultural consequence and too important to be held back by oversimplifying, dichotomous thinking in either camp.

    Serious individuals developing astrobiology and also less recognized approaches to the political-cultural implications of extraterrestrial life (like “exopolitics”) not only need to use or bring to bear many disciplines in an inter disciplinary manner but also need to find a TRANSDISCIPLINARITY approach (not just reduced to or based on modern scientific premises) in order to coordinate the various qualitative and quantitative disciplines and approaches to extraterrestrial life. Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, Nicolescu’s Transdisciplinarity ideas, Edgar Morin’s Complex Thought, Archie J. Bahm’s Organicism and other Meta philosophies should be able to help. Our integrative attitude also would.

    The intrinsic inseparability not only of information but of consciousness from a science capable of understanding how to manipulate spacetime will probably have to be systematized and understood to move on along with a way to integrate the natural sciences and the humanities so as to be able to embrace and interpret much more inclusive phenomena.

  4. happy veterans day
    October 28, 2015 at 6:45 am

    discovery of extraterrestrial life would likely encourage human society to think anew and/or more deeply and expansively about science, culture, life, theology, civilization. Therefore, it is important to start having these conversations to prepare society for the various implications of discovering extraterrestrial life which might formally occur under conventional means any time soon.

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