In 1977, Jerry Ehrman of Ohio State's Big Ear radio telescope observatory detected an unusual signal that was believed to come from the constellation Sagitarrius. A printout of the signal, translated into alphanumeric characters, showed that its 'signature' was so different from the incoming signals typically observed, it was assumed to be of extra-terrestrial origin. Ehrman proudly wrote "WOW!" in red ink upon the printout after circling the corresponding signal on the paper, and the name "Wow Signal" has stuck. This same signal has not been detected since. However, failure to make "first contact" with an intelligent civilization in this and other instances has not deterred the collective SETI [Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] projects from continuing with their work, and each successive instance of even a possible alien contact should cause us to reconsider our relation to anthropocentric thinking.
Anthropocentrism - the belief in humans as the crown of creation, and as priveleged observers of the universe - is a tough conviction to shake. It is over 150 years after Darwin's Origin of the Species delivered its rude shock to those who saw humans as fully distinct from the rest of biological life, and yet its message is far from universally accepted. All the same, the global intellectual community has shown signs in this century of further eroding the anthropocentric conceit. Not too long ago, something like a "post-humanities" department at a major university would not be taken seriously, and now we just need look at - for one example - the "Posthumanities" series of books published by University of Minnesota Press to see that this is a gradually expanding, suitably rigorous area of research. Likewise, a scientific interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life forms would once have been the kind of pursuit that would get one laughed out of the academy. An emerging literature from the field of astrobiology proves that, even if that is still the case, definite challenges are being mounted to the concept of our sovereignty in the universe. Whether this is due to a fatigue with anthropocentrism, the growing ecological panic on Earth, or some other convergence of factors is not exactly clear, but data seems to indicate the public is increasingly ready for such studies to expand: at the turn of the new millenium, some 61% of the polled populace "believed that alien life in some form exists elsewhere in the universe."[i]
The viability of astrobiology
The term 'astrobiology' was formally adopted by NASA in 1995 (after being coined by the astronomer Otto Struve four decades earlier), with the intent of studying life on every scale from the galactic down to the microscopic. As even a cursory glance at related literature will show, the discipline is not some sort of glorified UFO-logy, since it does not limit its aims to the discovery of currently existing and communicative life forms. While that is certainly a highly sought after prize, modern astrobioligists are also occupied with the evolution of planets themselves - thus exonerating them of the claim that they are searching for something that does not exist - and then determining on which planets there are suitable conditions for life.
Those who continue to take the skeptical view of astrobiological studies, even when informed of these more 'properly' scientific aims, often suffer from a kind of "observation bias": selectively believing that conditions for life that are identical to the ones supporting life on Earth (this is the approach more or less taken by Ward and Brownlee's highly skeptical bestseller Rare Earth.) Our rich history of speculative fiction, of course, has shown that we would at least prefer for extraterrestrial life forms to look and behave like us, given the number of fictional alien species (e.g. early depictions of Martians as "little green men") in our image. Intelligent non-terrestrial species are seen as being roughly symmetrical, having binocular vision, prefering to communicate verbally rather than by some other means…in short, beings that aspire to humanity in one way or another. I submit that this situation arises not from a sheer lack of ability to imagine anything else, but simply from a lingering feeling that, since this is the way things have developed, this is the way that things should be.
With such things in mind, David Catling's excellent astrobiology primer and related introductions to this field begin very cautiously, with a plea that we reconsider what "life" truly is before we attempt to discover and contact it. This on its own is no easy task, because - as Catling reminds us - most biological inventories simply catalog what life does rather than what it is, given that the list of essential biological characteristics includes "reproduction, growth, energy utilization through metabolism, response to the environment, evolutionary adaptation, and the ordered structure of cells and anatomy."[ii] As just about any text on astrobiology will admit, though, the behavior of fire qualifies it here as a form of life (since it too grows and reproduces while taking advantage of organic chemical reactions), and mineral crystals can also be argued as life forms based on their reproductive behaviors and environmental response.
So, resarchers investigating non-terrestrial life do regularly add the caveat that they are searching for "life as we know it". As the Mars rover missions have made clear, there is something of a fixation upon determining planets' habitability based upon the presence of liquid water, though numerous reports from astrociologists remind us that "it is but the first of three crucial factors that also include a suite of biogenic elements (most famously carbon), and a form of useable free energy."[iii] Chyba and Hand do offer hints that the search is intensifying for life that exists outside of this limited "biogenic suite," or at the very least that a search for silicon-based life might yield better results: it is a long shot, given that silicon-based chemistry does not have the flexible nature that carbon-based chemistry offers, yet it is another point of entry nonetheless. Inorganic compounds can also be used to fuel microscopic organisms, and to be used as oxidants, and a wide range of alternatives to sunlight are being explored as energy sources: these could include things such as a means of harnessing electromagnetic fields as an energy source.
From here, it is very important to note that the field of astrobiology is not completely bound up in the search for intelligent life, or more accurately for life forms that have a detectable "techno-signature" revealing them to be capable of advanced communication. To be sure, organizations such as SETI are highly devoted to this quest, which is made immediately clear in their name. Yet astrobiology as a whole is also devoted to the search for micro-organisms which might, at some point, provide the basis for intelligent life on other planets as they have on Earth.
This said, the lack of detectable advanced civilizations remains one of the greatest deterrents to public interest. The famous Fermi paradox revolves around the idea that the Earth should have been colonized or visited "by now" if there were other civilizations within the Milky Way capable of galactic exploration and colonization: given that some planets' own locations and conditions would give their sentient life the opportunity to reach our own level of technological advancement literally billions of years before us, why wouldn't they make themselves known to us? If the "Wow" signal had been transmitted by an alien civilization, for example, it would have required a transmitter of 2.2 gigawatts, which is significantly more powerful and advanced than any transmitter on Earth. It is hard to believe that an exceptionally brilliant individual like Enrico Fermi would basically say that something (currently) undetectable cannot exist, yet here we are. Having had to deal with such critiques regularly, Chyba and Hand reminds us that
Astrophysicists…spent decades studying and searching for black holes before accumulating today's compelling evidence that they exist (Melia & Falcke 2001.) The same can be said for the search for room-temperature superconductors, proton decay, violations of special relativity, or for that matter the Higgs boson.[iv]
When they then conclude that astrobiology "merely confronts what is a familiar, even commonplace situation in many of its sister sciences"[v] the objectives of groups like their own seem a lot less frivolous.
One challenge faced by SETI - and maybe also a partial response to the Fermi paradox - brings us back yet again to the difficulty of interpreting the universe from anything but a human standpoint. What if extraterrestrial societies, provided they have the requisite technological advancement to understand human communications along some portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, merely don't care to respond? Might it just be the case that intelligent species have the technological proficiency to build complex civilizations or to terraform otherwise inhospitable planets, yet do not have the inherent curiosity or expansionist 'pioneer' attitude so often attributed to humans' greatest successes? Perhaps the dominant species on another habitable world may have a much more favorable ratio of liveable terrain than Earth's 7:3 ratio of water vs. land, coupled with some greater ability than we have to keep biological reproduction and resource consumption sustainable?
The case of astrosociology
Considerations like this are where another relatively new field - astrosociology - comes to the fore. Jim Pass, CEO of the Astrosociology Research Institute [ARI] and arguably the prime mover of this emerging field since having an epiphany of sorts in 2002, claims that the Drake equation "should have made it clear long ago that the social sciences and humanities were essential [to astrobiology]."[vi] If, for no other reason, because a species that may dread being 'alone' in the universe may nonetheless be completely unequipped for contact with intelligent life from elsewhere in the galaxy. Pass emphasizes in his numerous papers that astrosociology is intended to fuse the 'soft' and 'hard' sciences, that it is a strictly multi-disciplinary and collaborative undertaking.
In his continuing battle for legitimation of this field, he urges sociologists to treat other aspects of interstellar travel and communication besides just the well-documented tragedies (e.g. the Challenger disaster) and to consider funding for groups like SETI as something other than a reckless waste of resources that could be directed towards the intractable social problems we are already faced with. Then again, neither does Pass see the aims of ARI as something that should take precedence over these other issues - arguing, for example, that astrobiology points the way towards resolution of the energy crisis or terrestrial overpopulation issues. With refreshing equanimity, he states that astrosociologists do not try to "prove [sociologists] wrong directly, just as a criminologist does not pursue his or her study of crime as an uncompromising moralist…the astrosociological approach seeks to reach an understanding of these attitudes in the context of all the others."[vii] Sadly Pass has not yet managed to convince the U.S. federal government to continue funding for SETI-related or astrosociological projects, and funding is now in the hands of private organizations (and this should probably come as little surprise in an era where the U.S. government continues to prioritize perpetual war above all other concerns.)
Detractors of both astrobiology and astrosociology will point out that they are merely a kind of 'science fiction' striving for academic relevance, although defenders like Simone Caroti clarify how astrosociology's aims differ: "astrosociology is a scholarly discipline whose main aim is to inform, teach, and prepare the bulk of the public for the onset of the age of space colonization and space flight; science fiction is a literary genre whose function is to tell stories."[viii] Yet the social sciences themselves are intimately bound up in telling the "story" of human life, and though these sciences' efforts deal with documented people and events rather than fictional ones, both our fictional and historical narratives converge at some point to further our understanding of our capabilities and limitations. Pass suggests that, even if astrosociology is considered as nothing more than a kind of speculative story workshop, these speculative still have tremendous value:
Exercises involving construction of interstellar messages possess important lessons for humanity. They can assist us in determining our levels of ethnocentrism and thereby allow us to overcome them. Even if we never detect intelligent extraterrestrial life, we can learn more about ourselves as well as our differences among human cultures. On the other hand, such exercises will prepare humanity for interacting with another intelligent species, if that is indeed possible. Through understanding our own cultural idiosyncrasies and deficiencies, we may be better prepared to communicate with aliens without projecting arrogance, hostility, or other potentially negative traits. We should keep in mind that we could better anticipate future possibilities by examining past cultural ideas and actual events (Vakoch, 2000). This will assist us to advance as a species and our societies will advance as well.[ix]
So, much as the "post-humanities" reveal what it means to be human by speculating about an Earth without us, so does astrobiological contemplation help to lay our unique biases, dreams and fears out into the open. Our understanding of our selves, rather than the for-now inconceivable space that engulfs us, continues to be the real "final frontier."
[i] Jim Pass, "Astrosociological Implications of Astrobiology (Revisited.)" AIP Conference Proceedings, Vo. 1208 No. 1 (2010), pp. 402-417.
[ii] David Catling, Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction, p. 6. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.
[iii] Christopher P. Chyba & Kevin P. Hand, "Astrobiology: The Study of the Living Universe." Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Vol. 43 No. 31 (2005), pp.31-74.
[vi] Pass (2010).
[vii] Jim Pass, "The Potential of Astrosociology in the 21st Century: Developing an Emerging Field to Help Solve Social Problems." AIP Conference Proceedings Vol. 1103 No 1. (2009), pp. 674-686.
[viii] Simone Caroti, "Astrosociology and Science Fiction: A Synergy." AIP Conference Proceedings, Vo. 1208 No. 1 (2010), pp. 393-401.
[ix] Pass (2010.)