Posted by: dacalu | 9 June 2016

The Call

In 1996, Gerald Soffen received a phone call from NASA Headquarters. Researchers at the Johnson Space Flight Center were reporting evidence of alien life in a Martian meteorite. The discovery was about to go public, the president was going to make a statement, what should he know. Soffen, who had been project scientist for the Viking mission – Martian landers from 20 years before – was the world expert on the search for alien life. What did he think? Was the science solid? There was little time and they needed an expert opinion.

The Allen Hills Meteorite (ALH84001) contains interesting carbon formations that look like microfossils. Seeing the research report, Soffen said yes, this looks like evidence for life, but not proof of life. More work needed to be done. NASA would be accused of hiding the truth if they didn’t say something right away, but the meteorite was promising. On August 7, 1996 President Bill Clinton made a public statement about the meteorite, the possibility that it harbored fossils, and the path of future research.

I was an undergraduate working for Gerald Soffen that summer. To this day, I consider myself both lucky and blessed to have been there. In the coming weeks and years, the scientific community investigated. We found that we were not convinced. Still, the arguments and the evidence spurred the development of astrobiology, a new way of looking at the search for life beyond Earth. Astrobiology integrates of many natural sciences and engineering. The Martian meteorite, along with discoveries of extrasolar planets and extreme organisms, led to a new scientific endeavor. Soffen convinced me to be part of the project. Though it would not be completed in his lifetime, or even mine, it was something important. We should think critically, search thoughtfully, and create an integrated picture of life in the universe.

Twenty years later I dread – and devoutly hope – that I, too, will receive a phone call. “We’ve seen something wriggling on Europa. We need to tell the world. What should we say?” These days I’m one of the experts, not only in astrobiology as a science, but something we call “astrobiology and society.” Life is a tricky concept and it means different things to different people. How can NASA as a public institution respect the beliefs of citizens, while being thoughtful about the science? When the public funds the search for life, what are they asking us to do? And how will they respond to what we find?

In recent years, the NASA Astrobiology Institute has funded several astrobiology and society programs, including a chair at the Library of Congress and a program at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton. These programs do not conflate religion and science. They do give us a chance to think critically about the questions. What makes life interesting? How can we search for life, study life on Earth, and communicate the results in a way that will satisfy the deep curiosity of the general public?

Thinking ahead, we may also have to answer some very difficult questions. If we do encounter life, will we have an ethical obligation to turn off the spacecraft? We don’t want to inadvertently harm something on Europa. That type of question rests solidly on what we, as a society, think about the value of life both on Earth and beyond. I’m proud to be one of the people laying the ground work so that when the time comes, we will be ready. I’m proud of my role in getting the best science to scholars of the humanities and the best of the humanities to scientists. The call may come tomorrow, or in a hundred years, but I think we will be ready.

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