(Elliptical galaxy. Image from Daily Galaxy. All credit due)
“Do you really think the moon isn’t there if you aren’t looking at it?” Albert Einstein’s question to fellow physicist Niels Bohr.
A great discussion, without any real answers. In a sense, we have no idea what changes will occur to our society when we finally receive contact from alien intelligence. It is a paradox of our reality, once communication is made and the open question of: Are we alone? Is then transformed into an unsettling but exciting prospect that our existence within the infinite universe is not unique.
“How extraterrestrial life would change our world view is a research interest of Steven Dick, who just completed a term as the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology. The chair is jointly sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Program and the John W. Kluge Center, at the Library of Congress.
Dick is a former astronomer and historian at the United States Naval Observatory, a past chief historian for NASA, and has published several books concerning the discovery of life beyond Earth. To Dick, even the discovery of microbes would be a profound shift for science.
“If we found microbes, it would have an effect on science, especially biology, by universalizing biology,” he said. “We only have one case of biology on Earth. It’s all related. It’s all DNA-based. If we found an independent example on Mars or Europa, we have a chance of forming a universal biology.”
Dick points out that even the possibilities of extraterrestrial fossils could change our viewpoints, such as the ongoing discussion of ALH84001, a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica that erupted into public consciousness in 1996 after a Science article said structures inside of it could be linked to biological activity. The conclusion, which is still debated today, led to congressional hearings.
“I’ve done a book about discovery in astronomy, and it’s an extended process,” Dick pointed out. “It’s not like you point your telescope and say, ‘Oh, I made a discovery.’ It’s always an extended process: You have to detect something, you have to interpret it, and it takes a long time to understand it. As for extraterrestrial life, the Mars rock showed it could take an extended period of years to understand it.”
In his year at the Library of Congress, Dick spent time searching for historical examples (as well as historical analogies) of how humanity might deal with first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. History shows that contact with new cultures can go in vastly different directions.”