Life on Mars… and beyond

viking lander
Credit: Mary A. Dale-Bannister, Washington University in St. Louis

The question of how we would respond to the possible discovery of alien life is one of the themes of Sea of Dreams. In fact, it was the initial impetus for writing the book. I started it because I wanted to explore how it was that we would understand something that had some of the characteristics that we assign to life, intelligence, without any of the other references for life.

Astrobiologist Steven Kluge highlighted some of the implications of the discovery of alien life.

[Q] What are the politics of extraterrestrial life, from your vantage point?

[A] This is more than an academic problem. It has political and societal implications. In both Congressional hearings on astrobiology, Members of Congress asked what do we do if we discover something? There’s been some work on this problem, but not enough, in my opinion. There are some basic planetary protection protocols regarding the microbial situation, but they haven’t gone much beyond that. And there are no protocols for intelligent life beyond “confirm first and then tell everyone.” This is not for a single person to figure out. It would need to be an interdisciplinary group that includes elected officials, scientists, humanists, and theologians. The theological implications would play out for each religion over the course of time. By the way, it seems largely to be western culture that has the preoccupation with life beyond Earth. It’s an interesting question why that is. Eastern cultures do not seem as preoccupied, whereas western scientists and popular culture are consumed by it. Why that is is an interesting research question that I’ve not explored.

Interview with Steven Kluge

This is just what starts to happen in Sea of Dreams. The possibility that what was encountered on the moon may be an intelligence starts a debate about the ethics of the mining activities on the moon. The debate will continue, and intensify, in the next book.

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