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Expanding the Astrobiology Conversation

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This year’s Blumberg Dialogues on Astrobiology expanded the conversations around astrobiology to include philosophers, historians, religion scholars, literature scholars, communications scholars and professors of English and theater, in addition to scientists. The videos of these public dialogues are now available on our website and YouTube; the dialogues were part of the Kluge Center’s Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology Program, which examines the complex humanistic and societal issues related to how life begins and evolves on earth and elsewhere in the universe.

Astrobiology raise numerous questions of interest to the humanities and social sciences (Read: “Why Astrobiology Matters to the Humanities”). Would the discovery of life in the universe affect our place in the cosmos? What are the potential origins of life on our planet, distant exoplanets, and moons? What compels us to search so fervently for life elsewhere? The Blumberg Dialogues offered an opportunity to bridge some of the issues that arise from astrobiological discoveries with the scholarship done by top scholars in religious studies, philosophy, history and the arts. We invited more than two dozen humanities scholars and scientists into the conversation over the course of six months. The results were quite interesting.

The first dialogue examined the intersection of astrobiology with religion. Theologians and scientists discussed how we understand and integrate science as part of our religious worldviews, bringing scholars of Islam, Buddhism, Christian ethics and Jewish studies into the conversation with scientists.

We are challenged by the daily discoveries about the ways in which the world in which we live has changed… Theologians are the last people to sign up to that change. Within Muslim thought, how to adapt, and how to make these kind of alterations, is a major challenge.

–Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies, Notre Dame University

§ Watch – Blumberg Dialogue #1: “Astrobiology and the Religious Imagination” (click video)

The second dialogue examined the intersection of astrobiology with the history of science. Scholars discussed how throughout history scientific discoveries have disrupted how humans have conceived of ourselves, and how astrobiology may disrupt that yet again.

We used to be at the center of the universe and along comes Copernicus and pulls us aside from that. So that’s a bit of a shock to our ego… What happens if we discover something in another galaxy or another planet in our own solar system?

–Paul Humphreys, Commonwealth Professor of Philosophy, University of Virginia

§ Watch – Blumberg Dialogue #2: “Rethinking Life on Earth and Beyond” (click video)

The third dialogue focused on astrobiology and the arts. Scholars of English, theatre, and communications discussed the stories we tell ourselves about our origins and place in the universe, and how new scientific discoveries can reshape those narratives.

I think part of what I’ve been spending my time with is dealing with the parables and the metaphors that are allowing us to comprehend our own humanity, that we can gain from a scientific understanding of the universe.

–Andrea Hairston, Louis Wolff Khan Professor of Theatre and African American Studies, Smith College

§ Watch – Blumberg Dialogue #3: “Stories about Life in the Cosmos” (click video)

Astrobiology is concerned with the possibilities for life in the universe: its origin, its evolution, its complexity and its potential ubiquity. It may be surprising to hear that in scientific circles, at least, there is currently no universally accepted definition of life. There are characteristics of life: it’s carbon based, it is self-sustaining and it undergoes Darwinian evolution (which is a subject that stimulates further conversation). But what are we looking for? Why do we want to look for life elsewhere? What is life? What is the course of life? Are we alone? And who are we? Bringing humanities scholars into the conversation with scientists may not bring us closer to knowing the answers–but it can help us to ask better questions.


Information about the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology is on our website:

Comments (2)

  1. Awesome!!!

  2. Awesome Work!!!

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