Home > Newsletter Archive > Newsletter #23
July 18, 2004
If microbes are discovered on Mars, I don't think it will be anything like the ephemeral excitement over the alleged 1996 fossils. First of all, the fossil theory was challenged almost from the outset, and of course nothing was ever proved. So the initial reaction was a response to the POSSIBILITY of the fossils being genuine. But far more important, at best the fossils were an indication that life may have existed in the remote past on Mars, something that most people have difficulty relating to. [A]ctually finding (and seeing) living microbes TODAY on Mars is a completely different situation. . . If life is detected on Mars, college students at every university in the world will be talking about this for decades. . .; and everyone else . . . will also be overwhelmed by this. The implications will reach into every phase of life. And even when the initial headlines pass and people are not thinking specifically about this discovery, the knowledge will always be in the back of their minds that WE ARE NOT ALONE. And, unlike the fossils, every time people think about it . . . they will realize that at the very moment they are thinking about it, these microbes are reproducing and multiplying on another planet and, by extension, throughout the universe. The comparison, then, of finding fossils from a long lost eon to observing living creatures today is, in my opinion, a very distant comparison.I'd love to hear other people's opinions on this. Would the confirmation of the existence of any kind of extraterrestrial life permanently change us? Obviously, it would revolutionize astrobiology. But would it affect us deeply - culturally, psychologically? I think Rob is right to argue that the fossils announcement wasn't a good test of this. (Was the Orson Welles broadcast of "War of the Worlds" in 1938 a good test of how we'd react to a "first contact" situation?) In any event, we'd better prepare ourselves mentally for the big announcement because it may be just around the corner. With the discovery of ammonia in the atmosphere of Mars, on top of the earlier news that methane had been found, it's getting more and more difficult (though not impossible) to find ways to explain these data that don't involve life. Personally, I think we're on the very eve of confronting the fact that we have cosmic neighbors even if they are only microscopic.
But do we share the universe with other intelligence? I'm open to being persuaded that finding microbial life out there would alter us profoundly. I don't need any persuading that the discovery of alien minds and civilizations, especially if they were more advanced than us, would change us permanently and beyond recognition.
We may have a longer wait for this discovery. I think we'll know definitively about life on Mars, if it's there, by the end of the decade. (We may be 99% sure by the end of this year, the way things are going.) But high intelligence is bound to be rarer perhaps very much rarer than low life. And high intelligence will almost inevitably be many thousands or millions of years ahead of us. We've only had powered flight for a century, and radio for not much longer than that. We're already talking about such esoterica as quantum energy drives, quantum computers, antigravity, and so forth, that may alter science and technology beyond description. Five hundred years from now we'll have moved into a different technological phase that will make us seem like super beings by today's standards. A race even 10,000 years ahead of us will not, I would contend, be trying to communicate by electromagnetic signals or sub-light-speed probes. Their technology and means of comunication and travel will be essentially invisible to us, just as cell phone messages are undetectable to a primitive rainforest tribe. In fact, I'd argue and I hope you'll argue back at me - that most intelligence in the universe will (a) not be interested in engaging us in a dialog (any more than we're interested in communicating with ants), and (b) intentionally avoid making their presence known to us (having adopted something like Star Trek's "prime directive"). I think we'd be overwhelmed and possibly destroyed by close contact with sufficiently advanced beings, however benign their intentions.
Having said this, being a scientist, I'm all for SETI, both in its conventional and unconventional forms. I applaud the work being done by the SETI Institute, the SETI League, and other groups around the world who are doing their darndest to seek out signs of alien intelligence and technology. I'm happy to be a participant in Alan Tough's "Welcome To ETI" project, which uses the Internet to open up an alternative line of communication for whoever might be out there. I think the proposals for searching the solar system for various types of alien probes and artifacts are particularly intriguing. And who knows? Perhaps we are being closely monitored by stealth probes. Perhaps alien anthropologists are mingling freely amongst us at this very moment, studying our customs and culture. (Any ideas for how we might spot them, if they are?) The fact is, none of us knows; we're all guessing, experts and layfolk alike. And the only way we can move any closer to understanding what varieties of life and mind populate the cosmos is to go out and look. My greatest optimism for rapid progress is with the bottom-up, astrobiological approach, where we look for life in general and then refine our notions of more complex life based on those findings. It's my belief that we'll identify Mars as being biologically active in the very near future. And I'd be surprised if our interferometric searches of other planetary systems don't turn up many more signs of extraterrestrial life within the next two decades. Beyond that I'm much less certain and perhaps less optimistic. There is intelligence beyond Earth, I'm convinced of it. But whether we'll be able or allowed to detect it, is another matter.