Why looking for aliens is good for society (even if there aren't any)

July 26, 2017 by Ian Crawford, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.

The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of , and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.

Why is this the case?

First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.

By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.

By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.

It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.

The Earth photographed from the surface of Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit, March 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

The cosmic perspective

Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.

It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.

In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: "We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space." Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.

Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.

In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of , and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.

Political implications

There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that "the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world". Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by , powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.

I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.

In concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.

Explore further: Scientific roadmap for European astrobiology

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Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2017
Volumes could be written about this, but even in this short article, the author got it right. Let us be candid here, space exploration in general is unlikely to affect the career options for the general populace for a very long time to come. So many question the value of it. However, as we push outwards, space exploration provides a unifying and desperately needed perspective. Whether we like it or not, we are one species living on one planet and our fortunes are clearly linked. As we slowly get this perspective into our collectively thick skulls, the path we should be on becomes more clear. Wars, damaging pollution, persistent hate, selfish leaders and stupidity, all work against us becoming the advanced species we probably need to become to survive.
Edenlegaia
5 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2017
Volumes could be written about this, but even in this short article, the author got it right. Let us be candid here, space exploration in general is unlikely to affect the career options for the general populace for a very long time to come. So many question the value of it. However, as we push outwards, space exploration provides a unifying and desperately needed perspective. Whether we like it or not, we are one species living on one planet and our fortunes are clearly linked. As we slowly get this perspective into our collectively thick skulls, the path we should be on becomes more clear. Wars, damaging pollution, persistent hate, selfish leaders and stupidity, all work against us becoming the advanced species we probably need to become to survive.


Yet that kind of adversity helped us as well to find solutions and ways to move far and far.
What doesn't kill you...
rderkis
1 / 5 (3) Jul 26, 2017
Yes, lets waste our money, resources young scientists on somthing that will not benefit humanity in the near future. When I was young I thought this was great! But as I got older I learned the phrase "Get your priorities in order".

Which of you would put listening for aliens above

Search for fusion.
Significantly better batteries
Cure for cancer
Gene editing for eliminating disease and starvation.
And on and on?

Mark Thomas
not rated yet Jul 26, 2017
Yes, lets waste our money, resources young scientists on somthing that will not benefit humanity in the near future.


You should reconsider the author's points and mine. It WILL benefit humanity in the near future by helping us develop a more mature perspective.

Speaking of perspective, your question implies that we cannot search for aliens and get anything else important done like research on fusion, batteries, cancer, etc. I completely agree that these are all very important, but only a tiny number of scientists are searching for aliens. Even our entire space program in the U.S. under NASA comprises less than one half of one percent of the federal budget. Space exploration is not holding anything else back, in fact, it is the exact opposite. Many people were inspired by the space program to study science and engineering in college. For example, Dr. Zubrin likes to point out that the Apollo Project doubled the number of folks studying science and engineering.
Edenlegaia
5 / 5 (1) Jul 27, 2017
Plus, it's also about being able to wider the range of disciplines. Wouldn't it be great?
Mark Thomas
not rated yet Jul 28, 2017
Yet that kind of adversity helped us as well to find solutions and ways to move far and far.
What doesn't kill you...


Given that we live in an ironic universe, this is probably true, but it doesn't mean we don't have to do better in the future. Part of the problem is the risks are becoming so much greater in everything we do because there are so many more of us and the leverage provided by technology is so much greater.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2017
Well it all boils down to the fact that we're animals (doesnt it always?) and we want to know as much as we can about whats going on within our territory, and our territory has recently expanded to include the entire universe.

Curiosity is a survival mechanism. This is why the sense of wonder is a positive emotion.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2017
Yes, lets waste our money, resources young scientists on somthing that will not benefit humanity in the near future.

You don't really understand scientists at all. For a scientists there'd be no job more interesting than looking for alien life. None of them would consider that a waste.

...and what you consider a waste...meh...who cares? You don't have any hopes and dreams. You#re not the future. You're the (dead) past. Deal with it.

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