Towards a Scientific and Societal Agenda on Extraterrestrial Life


By Nick Pope


In a previous article I wrote about a two day discussion meeting the Royal Society held on 25th and 26th January 2010, entitled “The Detection of Extraterrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society”.  This conference was a multi-disciplinary gathering where physicists, chemists, biologists, astronomers, anthropologists and theologians came together to discuss the search for extraterrestrial life: where and how are scientists searching?  How is the search progressing?  And most intriguingly, what happens if we find alien life?  What will be the effect on people’s worldview?  Will there be panic in the streets?  How will people’s religious beliefs be affected?  On 4th and 5th October 2010 the Royal Society held a follow-up meeting, entitled “Towards a Scientific and Societal Agenda on Extraterrestrial Life”.  As with the earlier meeting, I attended all sessions and had the opportunity to discuss some of the key issues with other speakers and attendees.  In this follow-up article I will give an overview of what was discussed and explain how the conference proved to be even more interesting and controversial than the first event.  I’ll also cover an intriguing issue that was to have been discussed at the meeting, was dropped at the last minute and then made international news headlines when it resurfaced at a NASA press conference held on 2nd December 2010.

Current Search Strategies

Scientists are searching for extraterrestrial life in a number of different ways and places.  One aspect of this is the search for extrasolar planets, on the basis that an Earth-like planet around a sun-like star might be a good place to look.  The first Super-Earths have been discovered and the longer-term goal will be to undertake spectral analysis of the atmospheres of such exoplanets, looking for oxygen, ozone, water and other potential indicators of life.  The recent excitement over Gliese 581g brings such work into focus – though even the very existence of this world is now a matter of some debate among astronomers.  Other scientists believe our best chance of discovering alien life will be human or robotic missions in our own solar system – probably to Mars – targeted on detecting extraterrestrial microbial life.


Most of the controversy at the Royal Society meeting revolved around the small but vociferous group of scientists who use radio telescopes to search the sky for a signal from other civilisations.  SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010.  The lack of results has led to a reassessment of search strategies.  Some exotic ideas about where to look and what to look for were discussed at the Royal Society meeting.  Clément Vidal, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels, speculated that advanced civilizations might migrate toward black holes, not least because they represent the ultimate energy source.  Steven Dick, formerly NASA’s Chief Historian, speculated that we might be living in a postbiological universe, dominated by AI (Artificial Intelligence), on the basis that intelligences would be driven to improve and perpetuate.  When I heard the phrase “immortal thinking machines”, I had to remind myself that I was at the Royal Society, not a sci-fi convention. 

SETI and Ufology

As I have pointed out before, there’s considerable hostility between SETI and ufology.  The SETI community regards ufology as unscientific at best - charlatans and crackpots at worst.  Generally speaking, they take the view that faster-than-light travel is impossible, thus ruling out viable interstellar travel.  Accordingly, ufology is nonsense, because it’s not possible that we’re being visited.  Ufologists question whether advanced extraterrestrial civilizations would be using radio at all.  The late Terence McKenna, writer and counter-culture philosopher, once said that “to search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture-bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant”.  Ufologist Stanton Friedman has dubbed SETI “Silly Effort to Investigate” while many other ufologists criticise SETI, saying it’s bizarre to look for life ‘out there’, when that life is already ‘down here’.  Others in the UFO community go further, believing that SETI has found a signal and is covering it up, or suggesting that the whole SETI program is a smokescreen – part of a wider disinformation operation aimed at covering up the extraterrestrial presence but, perhaps, serving as a mechanism by which ‘Disclosure’ might eventually be achieved.  Having met many of the key SETI figures, I do not find such accusations remotely credible.  A more reasonable criticism, perhaps, is the observation that it’s unscientific for the SETI community (or indeed for any other scientists who dismiss ufology out of hand) to ignore data.

It’s certainly ironic that people who are prepared to speculate about civilisations migrating towards black holes or evolving into immortal thinking machines are dismissive about UFOs.  The answer, of course, is that they have to be, for fear of reputational damage.  In private, however, there are plenty of NASA and SETI folk who are far more favourably disposed towards UFOs than they would ever admit in public.

As somebody who belongs to neither ‘side’ but has friends and acquaintances on both, I believe SETI and ufology are both worth pursuing.  Arguably, these are two groups of dedicated individuals who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life, but who are looking for it in different places and with different methodologies.  There is, perhaps, more that binds them together than sets them apart. 

What If SETI Finds a Signal?

So what happens if SETI find a signal?  Do we reply?  Though not present, the shadow of Professor Stephen Hawking loomed large over the meeting.  Earlier in 2010 Hawking warned bluntly that contacting aliens could have catastrophic consequences for the human race.  He likened this to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World and pointed out that matters didn’t turn out too well for the Native Americans.  This echoed a remark made at the Royal Society’s January conference, when Professor Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge University palaeontologist, said “if the cosmic phone rings, don’t answer”. 


Related to the debate about whether to reply to any message received is the question of whether to actively transmit messages ourselves.  Such a process is known as active SETI, or METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence).  This was discussed extensively at the second Royal Society meeting and that’s when things got heated.  Some SETI scientists want to move into METI.  One reason is that fifty years of searching has produced no results – the “eerie silence” that Paul Davies speaks about.  SETI scientists are defensive on this issue and are quick to point out that in terms of stars targeted with any degree of thoroughness, they have only just scratched the surface.  They use the analogy point of dipping a cup into the sea and finding that it contains no fish.  This does not mean there are no fish in the oceans, any more than SETI’s failure to find a signal means there are no other communicable civilisations in the cosmos.  Another reason for undertaking METI is the theory that extraterrestrials might not initiate contact, but might respond to a message that we send.  Our proactivity might serve as some sort of ‘trigger point’, as we cross a threshold that perhaps makes us interesting.  Some METI has already been done, e.g. the “Cosmic Calls” transmitted in 1999 and 2003 from Evpatoria Planetary Radar, under the supervision of Dr Alexander Zaitsev. 

Author and futurist David Brin felt very strongly that there ought to be a moratorium on METI, until such time as an informed debate could take place.  He clearly thought people such as Stephen Hawking and Simon Conway-Morris had a point.  Brin felt that objectors to METI were being ridiculed with Hollywood stereotypes about evil aliens and said this showed a disappointing lack of imagination.  He asked what was wrong with having a debate on the subject, as such a debate would be responsible, interesting and fun.

Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, took the opposite view.  He said that any attempts to proscribe METI were rooted in paranoia and would be anti-science.  He saw no point in any consultation process, because it wasn’t clear who would have the right to decide, or how it would help us pick the right answer.  He also wondered how, short of going to war, any moratorium could be enforced (conjuring up the surreal image of a cruise missile strike against a radio telescope).  Shostak and others have pointed out that the horse has left the barn long ago and that we’ve been a detectable civilization for decades anyway, due to our FM, television and radar signals.  This point is disputed, but the question is unanswerable at present.  We don’t know how big or powerful alien radio telescopes might be – if indeed such things exist.  Such are the debates that bedevil the SETI community, where they’re speculating about something that they can’t study and which we don’t even know is there at all.

If a Signal is Detected, who decides if we Reply?

The closest thing there is to any regulation of all this is the SETI community’s “Declaration of Principles Concerning the Conduct of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”.  This revised document was unanimously adopted by the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics on 30th September, 2010.  It states that “In the case of the confirmed detection of a signal, signatories to this declaration will not respond without first seeking guidance and consent of a broadly representative international body, such as the United Nations”.  However, none of this covers METI and in any case, the agreement isn’t legally binding and is between individuals and non-governmental organisations, not between States.

David Brin raised the issue of “sages” being consulted, but there was no consensus on who they might be.  And as one questioner pointed out, in relation to talk of “sages” and the United Nations, do the other six billion of us get any say?

If we Reply to a Signal, What Should we Say?

The SETI Institute’s Earth Speaks project has attempted to engage the public on this and asks for suggestions on what we might transmit.  The messages range from the poignant to the amusing, with my favorite being “Hi, be careful, we are deadly and it’s pretty boring here anyway so don’t bother coming”. 

The United Nations

Despite the question of whether the UN could and should speak for Earth, it is, perhaps, the best of the suggestions about who should take on the role of deciding whether to reply to a signal and deciding what might be said.  With that in mind, it was interesting that one of the key speakers at the Royal Society meeting was Professor Mazlan Othman, Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs.  The week before the meeting, numerous media outlets carried a story that she had been appointed as an ‘alien ambassador’ - a spokesperson for Planet Earth if ET comes calling.  Rumors flew around the UFO and conspiracy theory communities that an alien signal had been detected and that an announcement was imminent.  The Royal Society meeting itself was seen as being part of this process and when the alien ambassador story was denied, this started rumors of a cover-up.  As Professor Othman clarified at the meeting, the story was false and derived from a mistaken interpretation of the point she did make, i.e. that the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) might be appropriate places when it comes to managing the global response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

Professor Othman set out some ideas on the process whereby the various issues (scientific, societal, legal and ethical) that would arise from the discovery or detection of extraterrestrial life might be brought to the UN and used the Near Earth Objects issue as a potential precedent for this process.  However, her message was clear, “come to COPOUS with a degree of consensus”.  But as the row over METI illustrated, we are a long way from consensus.  Expect some interesting debates over the next few months.

The Shadow Biosphere

Few in the UFO community are aware of or have followed the debate about the shadow biosphere, but yet, it is a debate that – if resolved – has profound implications for the issue of extraterrestrial life.  The issue was raised at the first Royal Society meeting, came up more tangentially at the second, and then arose again, two months later, at an extraordinary NASA press conference.

If life arose quickly and easily on Earth, why did this happen only once?  It’s a good question, but a question few thought to ask.  We don’t know exactly how life on Earth started, but so far as we are aware, all life on Earth can be traced back to a single “Universal Common Ancestor”.  This poses a problem for those who believe in extraterrestrial life, because it supports the view that life was some sort of cosmic miracle.  If this was not the case, why should life not have arisen more than once?  But maybe it did.  Maybe life arose and then became extinct, or maybe it arose and survives to this day.  Might we find such life – a so-called ‘shadow biosphere’, made up of life that arose quite independently from all life as we know it?  This would be a profound discovery because if life arose more than once on Earth it would argue against the ‘cosmic miracle’ hypothesis.  The clear implication would be that there’s nothing magical about life and if it arose twice (or multiple times) on just one planet, the logical implication is that the universe should be teeming with life.  This is why not just SETI scientists, but ufologists, should be watching the shadow biosphere debate closely, because if the shadow biosphere is found, the case for ET suddenly becomes much stronger.

Mono Lake

Paul Davies spoke a lot about the shadow biosphere at the first Royal Society meeting.  He mentioned in particular the work of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a biochemist who had been doing some extremely interesting research at Mono Lake in California.  Mono Lake is a highly toxic environment, rich in arsenic.  Paul Davies dropped heavy hints that Felisa had found something of immense importance, so when I received my invitation to the second Royal Society meeting in October 2010 and saw that Felisa was to speak about Mono Lake, I had an inkling of what might be coming.  Sure enough, when my pre-meeting pack arrived, her presentation was entitled “A shadow biosphere in Mono Lake?”

However, when I arrived at the Royal Society meeting on 4th October and picked up the programme, there had been a small but rather significant change.  A sticker had been placed over the title of Felisa’s talk.  It now read “Microbes and the four basic strategies for life on Earth”.  I peeled back the sticker, just to check, and the original “A shadow biosphere in Mono Lake?” title was revealed.  This was intriguing, but not as sinister as it might sound.  Felisa had written a paper, it was being reviewed, but had not yet been published.  She didn’t want to say too much too soon, in case the review process revealed some fundamental problem with her data.  Additionally, if she really did have a major scoop in the pipeline, she wanted to announce it on her terms.  So she was happy to discuss the issue with a few of us over lunch, on the understanding that we’d keep what she said in confidence, but didn’t want to discuss it in public.

The NASA Press Conference

In late November 2010 NASA circulated a note stating that a press conference would be held, at which an important announcement would be made.  NASA’s note contained the intriguing phrase that the announcement was "to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life".  Rumours circulated rapidly on the internet and on Facebook.  The UFO community, in particular, thought this was to be the much-anticipated announcement that extraterrestrial life had been discovered – the ‘Disclosure’ that many believe is imminent.  The mainstream media ran the story in the day or two between the publication of NASA’s advisory note and the press conference itself.  Speculation reached fever pitch.

When I read the NASA advisory note, I saw that Felisa Wolfe-Simon was to be one of the speakers.  Suddenly, everything fell into place.  Was this the discovery of a shadow biosphere?  It wouldn’t be Disclosure, but it would be a Nobel Prize winning discovery that would revolutionise science and would surely convince everyone that the Universe was teeming with life.

The much-anticipated press conference took place on 2nd December 2010.  Felisa announced that she and her team had discovered microbes that were able to thrive and even reproduce using arsenic – which in the normal course events is highly toxic.  To put the magnitude of this discovery into perspective, it was previously believed that all life has the same six basic chemical building blocks, namely carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulphur.  Phosphorous is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA.  So the researchers took microbes from this phosphorous-lean, arsenic-rich environment and in the laboratory they removed the phosphorous altogether.  Not only did the microbes continue to thrive, but the arsenic wasn’t just being ‘breathed’ – it was being incorporated into the microbes’ biochemical machinery, such as the DNA.  This fundamentally changes how we define life and has a profound effect on astrobiology, because we now have a less restrictive definition of life.  This means, for example, that those designing future missions to Mars may – if the missions are aimed at finding life – need to rethink where and how to look.  But the key point, of course, is that it gives them more options, not less.  “Life will find a way”, so it seems.

The Aftermath

Given the previous media speculation about an announcement of extraterrestrial life, the reaction to the press conference was something of an anti-climax.  This was a shame, because while this wasn’t alien life, it was, to borrow a phrase from popular culture, “life, but not as we know it”.

The scientific community is still digesting Felisa’s findings - though not, one hopes, in a literal sense!  As with all such discoveries, there has been a degree of skepticism in certain quarters.  As I write, a debate on the findings is underway, with some biochemists specialising in nucleic acids suggesting alternative hypotheses that might explain Felisa’s data.

Genesis 2 versus Genesis 1.5

So are Felisa’s arsenic-loving microbes proof of a shadow biosphere?  Is this proof of a second Genesis?  These are early days, but as I write, the consensus is that while this opens the door to the possibility of a shadow biosphere, this probably isn’t Genesis 2.  A key problem with the shadow biosphere theory is determining whether something is Genesis 2, or merely Genesis 1.5 - i.e. an extremophile that's radically different from all other life on Earth, but still evolved from the same 'Universal Common Ancestor'. Felisa and her team are undertaking further research and additional papers are expected, so watch out for further exciting revelations.

As an amusing postscript, Felisa’s paper contained no explanation of why she’d dubbed the microbes GFAJ-1.  Paul Davies subsequently revealed that the acronym stands for “Give Felisa A Job”.