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Written at the Kluge Center: “The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth”

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Cover, “The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth,” ed. Steven Dick, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

In a new series, we profile books, articles and other publications written by scholars-in-residence at The John W. Kluge Center and researched using the Library of Congress collections. Jason Steinhauer begins with the newly published “The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth,” edited by 2013-14 Astrobiology Chair Steven Dick.

Extraterrestrial life has not been discovered, nor has it been confirmed to have come into contact with Earth. There is, however, a growing body of scientists and scholars who believe that such a discovery is likely—and at the very least, cannot be ruled out. How we might prepare for such an encounter is the subject of a new book borne out of research and events at The John W. Kluge Center.

The book is titled “The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth,” edited by former NASA Chief Historian Steven Dick. Dick held the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology for 2013-14. During his tenure, Dick researched the potential implications for society if we were to discover life beyond our planet—whether it be microbial, complex or intelligent life. He hosted a two-day symposium on the subject of preparing for discovery in September 2014 that featured more than 20 scientists, philosophers, theologians and NASA personnel examining the question for the first time in a systematic way. The insights and proceedings are collected in this new volume; it is the elaborated and full reference record of the event.

How do you rationally approach a “far-out” subject such as discovering life beyond Earth? This was the subject of Dick’s research at the Kluge Center. History, Dick has said, can offer some insight: the reactions to past rumored discoveries (the moon hoax, the War of the Worlds broadcast) can be informative, though they cannot predict how we will react in the future. Dick also explained during his tenure that discovery is an extended process. Any discovery will have to be assessed and verified over a period of months, if not years. Finally, various analogies can illuminate what it might be like when different cultures come into contact (think the Europeans and the Americas), though analogies can only serve as guideposts.

Dick’s new volume combines his research at the Library with the thinking of scholars from around the world who presented at our symposium (watch videos of each talk here). It brings multi-disciplinary thinking to the questions of astrobiology, which is at the heart of the Kluge Center’s astrobiology program. Astrobiology is the search for life in the universe: the origins of life on earth and beyond, the future of life, and the implications for us if we find it elsewhere. With thousands of confirmed exoplanets beyond our solar system, for some scholars and scientists, it stands to reason that one of them must contain the elements of life—or did at one time. This raises a number of questions for humanity.

Philosopher Clément Vidal suggests in the volume that what we will find is likely to be either microbial life or Kardashev Type II stellar civilizations. Neither will be able to communicate with us: one will not be advanced enough, the other far too advanced. He proposes a multidimensional impact model with 26 dimensions that covers both what extraterrestrials may look like and how humans may react.

In a section on transcending anthropomorphism, or “getting out of our own heads,” scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch conjectures that life in the universe will likely be even more diverse than we know on Earth—and we know how diverse life truly is here. Life may be so strange on other planets that we may not recognize it. The environmental conditions in the lower clouds of Venus, for example, may be hospitable for life: they possess hospitable temperatures, maintain chemical equilibrium, and have carbon oxide sulfide in the atmosphere. Life may exist there today, if we know what to look for.

Other essays include Elspeth Wilson and Carol Cleland on astrobiology as a new frontier in bioethics. What qualities must an extraterrestrial organism possess in order to qualify for moral status? Theologian Robin Lovin, holder of the 2013 Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History at the Kluge Center, challenges theologians in his essay to not solely think in terms of human dignity, but human dignity in the context of other life—recognizing the image of God in forms of life that do not share our physical and biological history.

If intelligent life is discovered beyond Earth, Dick says we will have to reckon with the essential question of whether human knowledge is objective. Is how we see the universe the same as an extraterrestrial civilization? Scientists might say yes; philosophers may have a different answer. And while Dick is optimistic that intelligent life exists, he writes in his contribution to the volume that “only” discovering microbial life will still have far-reaching consequences. Such a discovery could profoundly shift our worldview, much like Copernicus’ discoveries gave birth to new physics and Darwin’s theories have shifted human views on evolution and biology. It was, after all, only in the 1660s and 1670s that Robert Hooke and Anthony van Leeuwenhoek discovered microbes here on Earth, leading to a whole universe of scientific discoveries in microbiology that was unforeseen prior. “The same will probably be true of extraterrestrial microbes,” Dick suggests. If ever such a discovery comes, this new volume is a primer on how humanity might cope with it.

Steven Dick held the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology for 2013-2014. “The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth” is the elaborated and full reference record of the NASA/Kluge Center symposium held on September 18-19, 2014, titled “Preparing for Discovery: A Rational Approach to the Impact of Finding Microbial, Complex or Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and hosted by Dick. This post, and others in this series, does not constitute the Library’s endorsement of the views of the individual scholar or an endorsement of the publisher.

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