AUSTIN, Texas — If extraterrestrial life exists, there’s a chance we’ll detect it sometime in the next 20 years. And then what? A recently published study suggests that most folks will take the news calmly, if they care at all.
“How would we react if we find that we’re not alone in the universe? This question has been the cause of great speculation over the years — but, until now, virtually no systematic empirical research,” Michael Varnum, a psychologist at Arizona State University, said today in Austin at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In a study published by Frontiers of Psychology, Varnum and his colleagues suggest that revelations about life beyond our planet will be viewed more positively than negatively.
That runs counter to the cautions contained in a series of studies put out during the 1950s and 1960s, implying that society couldn’t handle the truth about aliens. Such studies fueled suspicions among conspiracy theorists that the world’s governments were hiding evidence of alien life, purportedly for our own good. Those studies focused the potential impact of face-to-face encounters with intelligent extraterrestrials — and continue to provide the sci-fi fodder for movies such as “Independence Day” and TV shows such as “The X-Files.”
In contrast, the scenarios that Varnum’s team considered were more realistic, and almost literally ripped from the headlines.
Researchers analyzed the content of a variety of reports relating to potential discoveries of alien life, including articles from 1996 suggesting a Mars meteorite might contain fossilized nanobacteria; and more recent reports speculating that a faraway star might harbor an alien megastructure.
The team also used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing service to recruit more than 500 experimental subjects, and asked them how they’d respond to theoretical claims that signs of life had been found on a distant exoplanet. After their study was published, the researchers conducted an extra mini-analysis, looking at the text from eight news reports considering the possibility that an interstellar asteroid called ‘Oumuamua was actually a visiting starship.
A linguistic analysis of the news reports, as well as the experimental subjects’ reactions to such reports, all leaned more toward the positive than the negative. The subjects responded more positively to reports hinting at the discovery of alien life than they did to reports about the creation of human-made synthetic life.
“Some of the negative responses were ‘It wouldn’t affect me,’ or ‘I’m not sure I buy it,’ or ‘Why should I care?'” Varnum said. “In the positive responses, the one thing that stood out, just sort of eyeballing it, was that the word ‘curious’ seemed the most commonly used, followed by ‘excited.'”
For those who are looking forward to news about life beyond Earth, there could be a lot to get excited about in the months and years ahead:
- NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is due to be launched into a highly elliptical orbit in April to take on an all-sky search for alien planets.
- Astronomers are building a high-resolution spectrometer called EXPRES to look for the signatures of extrasolar worlds in the range of Earth’s mass. A spectrometer with a similar mission, dubbed ESPRESSO, is already on duty in Chile.
- The Hubble Space Telescope is already analyzing the atmospheres of extrasolar planets — and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, due for launch in the 2019-2020 time frame, is expected to do a significantly better job of hunting down the chemical signatures of biological activity.
- Still more powerful space telescopes, ranging from WFIRST to LUVOIR and HabEx, are on the drawing boards. NASA has called for canceling WFIRST in its 2019 budget proposal, but there’s still a chance Congress could save it from the chopping block.
So when will alien life be found? Traces of biological activity could be detected in the course of future missions to Mars, or the Jovian moon Europa, or the Saturnian moon Enceladus over the next 20 years or so.
Looking beyond our solar system, astronomers expect to zero in on Earthlike planets in Earthlike orbits around sunlike stars, as well as potentially habitable planets circling red dwarf stars. By the 2030s, they hope to have space telescopes powerful enough to detect chemical signs of life on those planets.
“I’m hoping that this will be a continuum of discovery,” said Yale astronomer Debra Fischer, one of the leaders of the EXPRES science team.
But Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University, cautioned that the real-world discovery of alien life probably wouldn’t unfold as quickly and decisively as it does in the movies.
“I think it would take years of argumentation in the scientific community about the validity of the signature, the biosignatures on an exo-Earth,” she said. “That’s a very contentious field. And I worry about how the public will view science after that, more than I worry about how the public will view the biosignature.”
Update for 1:35 p.m. PT Feb. 17: We’ve fine-tuned the description of the methodology used for assessing the positive vs. negative spin of reports and reactions relating to the potential discovery of alien life.