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Preparing For Discovery: A Rational Approach to the Impact of Finding Microbial, Complex, or Intelligent Life Beyond Earth
Astrobiology has revealed new discoveries about our world and the solar system. Living organisms thrive in harsher environments on Earth than we ever previously imagined. Microbial biodiversity and extremophile life are now known to be ubiquitous and abundant. Beyond Earth, science has identified more than 1,400 exoplanets. That life thrives in multifarious conditions, coupled with these potentially habitable exoplanets and the detection of life-giving elements on numerous moons on asteroids, means we must face the possibility that simple or complex organisms may be discovered beyond Earth. How might we prepare for such a discovery? Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Steven J. Dick convenes scientists, historians, philosophers and theologians from around the world for a two-day symposium at the Library of Congress to explore how we prepare to face new knowledge that may challenge our very conceptions of life and our place in the universe.

Date/Time: September 18 - 19, 2014 from 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
     Free and open to the public
Location: The John W. Kluge Center, Room 119, Thomas Jefferson Building. 
     Directions to the Library of Congress

Live stream: Choose the option to Enter as a Guest, type your name in the field, and click Enter Room. Chat will be enabled; please keep comments kind, courteous and on point. Click here to access the live stream

Steven J. DickHost

Dr. Steven J. Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at The John W. Kluge Center; astronomer, historian, and former chief historian at NASA.
More about Steven J. Dick


  • Constance M. Bertka - Science and Society Resources, Consultant
  • Linda Billings - Director of Communication, Center for Integrative STEM Education, National Institute of Aerospace
  • Eric J. Chaisson - Astrophysicist, Harvard University
  • Carol Cleland - Professor of Philosophy, University of Colorado
  • Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ - Astronomer and meteoriticist at the Vatican Observatory
  • Iris Fry - Professor, Department of Humanities and Arts, Tecnion - Israel Institute of Technology (retired)
  • Robin W. Lovin - Director of Research, Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey
  • Mark Lupisella - Leader, NASA Goddard Advanced Exploration Systems support for Human Exploration
  • Jane Maienschein - Regents’ Professor, President’s Professor, and Parents Association Professor at Arizona State University
  • Lori Marino - Neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence
  • Carlos Mariscal - Post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Comparative Genomics & Evolutionary Bioinformatics in Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • Margaret Race - Senior Scientist at SETI Institute in Mountain View, California
  • Susan Schneider - Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Connecticut
  • Dirk Schulze-Makuch - Professor in the School of the Environment at Washington State University
  • Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California
  • John W. Traphagan - Anthropologist and Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at University of Texas at Austin
  • Douglas Vakoch - Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute
  • Clément Vidal - Philosopher, co-director of the 'Evo Devo Universe'
  • Elspeth Wilson - Doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Jennifer Wiseman - Senior Scientist for Hubble Space Telescope, NASA Goddard

More events featuring Steven Dick

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The NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology is a distinguished senior scholar at The John W. Kluge Center who conducts research at the intersection of the science of astrobiology and its humanistic implications. Applications are accepted through December 1 from eligible scholars. Learn more, apply

Astrobiology addresses three fundamental questions: "How did life begin and evolve?" "Is there life beyond Earth?" and "What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?"
Learn more about astrobiology

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Day 1 – September 18, 2014

9:00 – 9:15

The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress

Introductory Remarks
Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA

9:15 – 9:30

Hon. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman, House Committee on Science, Space and Technology

9:30 – 10:00

Setting the Stage
“Astrobiology and Society: An Overview of the Symposium” – Steven J. Dick, NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology

“Current Approaches to Finding Life Beyond Earth, and What Happens If We Do” – Seth Shostak, SETI Institute

The search for extraterrestrial biology has three broad approaches: (1) discover life in the solar system by direct exploration; (2) find chemical signatures for biology in the atmospheres of exoplanets or exomoons; or (3) detect signals (radio or optical) transmitted by intelligent beings elsewhere. How society might react to life beyond Earth is an important, and so far largely neglected, question.

10:00 – 10:15


10:15 – 12:15

Approaches: How Do We Frame the Problem of Discovery?
Moderator / Chair, Seth Shostak, SETI Institute

“History, Discovery, Analogy” – Steven J. Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology

How can we approach questions about the societal impact of finding microbial or complex life in the universe? Three approaches may be explored: 1) history, examining the reaction when people thought life had been discovered beyond Earth; 2) past scientific discovery, which suggests that any new discovery of extraterrestrial life is likely to require lengthy periods of detection and interpretation; and 3) analogy, in which past events are used as guidelines to study possible reactions to new discoveries

“Silent Impact: The Worldview Significance of Discovering Non-Communicative Extraterrestrials” – Clément Vidal, Free University of Brussels

A strong case can be made that we have the most chances of discovering either primitive life forms or advanced stellar civilizations, and that in both cases, communication would be limited or difficult, if not utterly absent or impossible. What would be the worldview impact of discovering extraterrestrials without communicative intent?

“The Philosophy of Astrobiology” – Iris Fry, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

Astrobiology research is dominated by two major philosophical theses, the Copernican and the Darwinian. The first postulates that Earth is a planet among other planets and not a privileged abode of life. The other upholds that favorable physico-chemical conditions might lead universally to the emergence and evolution of living systems. It is essential to note the epistemological status of these philosophical presuppositions.

Discussion + Q&A

12:15 - 1:45


1:45 – 4:45

Transcending Anthropocentrism: How Do We Move Beyond Our Own Preconceptions of What Life Is?
Moderator / Chair, Carol Cleland, University of Colorado

“The Landscape of Life” – Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Washington State University and Technical University Berlin

Life as we know it uses carbon as a major building block, light and chemical compounds as an energy source, water as a solvent, RNA or DNA for replication and other well-known molecules for a variety of biochemical functions. With this tool box life is ideally adapted for a terrestrial planet such as Earth. However, because life is intrinsically related to the environmental conditions to which it is exposed, the landscape of life is likely much larger given the breadth of planetary conditions existing in the universe.

“The Landscape of Intelligence” – Lori Marino, The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy

Much of our current understanding of intelligence as an astrobiological question and, specifically, the nature and much-vaunted uniqueness of human intelligence, are based on ancient philosophical notions about the status of humans among other animals. In this presentation I will briefly identify these longstanding assumptions and provide an update on the changing landscape of our growing understanding of intelligence from modern studies of brain evolution, neuroscience, genetics, and animal behavior.

“Universal Biology: Circumventing the N=1 Problem about Life” – Carlos Mariscal, Centre for Comparative Genomics & Evolutionary Bioinformatics

A development and defense of an account of 'universal biology,' the study of non-vague, non-arbitrary, non-accidental, and universal generalizations in biology. A candidate biological generalization is assessed in terms of the assumptions it makes and discounted if its justification requires contingent facts about life here on Earth. A methodology to assess the robustness with which generalizations about life can be expected to hold is provided.


“Equating Culture, Civilization, and Moral Development in Imagining ETI: Anthropocentric Assumptions?” – John Traphagan, University of Texas at Austin

This paper considers ways in which anthropomorphized notions of culture, civilization, and morality have influenced and generated assumptions about what a non-human intelligence would be like, how communication with that intelligence might occur, and how culturally bounded notions of progress and development have shaped the imaginations of scientists and others when thinking about the moral nature of ETI.

“Communicating with the Other” – Douglas Vakoch, SETI Institute

If the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) detects an artificial signal from a distant civilization, our next challenge will be to understand any encoded message, and to decide what we may want to transmit in reply. Thus far, the few intentional messages humans have sent into space reflect the assumption that mathematics and science are universal. How accurate is this Platonic notion that our math and physics tap into universal principles? Even if we and they have commensurable scientific and mathematical concepts, how can we make sure they will recognize which concepts we are referring to?

Discussion + Q&A

Day 2 – September 19, 2014

9:00 – 9:10

Setting the Stage

Astrobiology and Society” - Steven J. Dick, NASA/Library of Congress Chair

9:10 – 12:10

Philosophical Impact: How Do We Comprehend The Philosophical and Theological Challenges Raised by Discovery?
Moderator / Chair, Constance Bertka, Science and Society Resources

“Potential Roles for Life and Intelligence in the Evolution of the Cosmos” – Mark Lupisella, NASA

This paper explores speculations for how life and intelligence might ultimately be related to the future evolution of the universe (and possibly the "metaverse"), and how such speculations might be related to present and future worldviews, including influences of evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution. Concepts such as terraforming, "astro-engineering" and "cosmo-engineering" will be explored, as well as potential roles for culture, morality, and value theory more generally.

“The Moral Status of Non-Human Organisms” – Carol Cleland (University of Colorado Boulder) and Elspeth Wilson (University of Pennsylvania)

What are our ethical responsibilities towards alien forms of life? Prevailing accounts of the intrinsic moral worth of nonhuman organisms are problematically anthropocentric. This presentation argues that the best strategy is to augment our fanciful thought-experiments with actual case studies of nonhuman forms of Earth life whose moral status is ambiguous—organisms such as cephalopods (e.g., octopuses) and certain hymenopterans (e.g., honey bees) displaying what seem to be morally relevant characteristics although they differ from us anatomically, behaviorally, and in social structure.

“Alien Minds” - Susan Schneider, University of Connecticut

Drawing from the computational paradigm in cognitive science, thinking about the technological singularity and philosophical work on the nature of consciousness, this talk comments on what alien minds might be like. Ray Kurzweil and others have argued that humans will evolve into non-biological life forms during a technological singularity; from scientific and cultural trends, this is in fact a serious possibility for our species.


“Astrobiology and Theology,” - Robin Lovin, Center for Theological Inquiry, Princeton, N.J.

Theology is an integrative and interpretative discipline whose task is to make sense of ordinary experience and scientific knowledge, in light of traditions that provide a moral orientation that transcends the particular time and place in which we find ourselves. The possibility of life on other worlds and speculations about the nature of that life are inherently interesting questions for theology, because they test the limits of the integrative and interpretative ideas by which we relate ourselves to the whole of reality and to God. Astrobiology gives a new empirical dimension to these ancient theological questions, because it suggests that the diversity within uniformity of living things is so great that we cannot definitively conclude from the basic facts of chemistry and physics whether life is inevitable or accidental, and whether life develops inexorably toward intelligence, or whether it has done so just this once.

“Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” – Guy Consolmagno, SJ Vatican Observatory

This frequently-asked question raises interesting issues not only for what it means to be a creature of this universe in need of baptism, but also in terms of when it is appropriate, or not, to “baptize” modern science and its understanding of our universe in the light of our religious beliefs. How can the question be re-framed to better illuminate its hidden assumptions, especially about the significance of our belief systems, in the face of an overwhelmingly large universe?

Discussion + Q&A

12:10 - 1:45


1:45 – 4:05

Practical Impact: How Should Society Cope with Discovery?
Moderator / Chair, Jennifer Wiseman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Is there Anything New about Astrobiology and Society?” - Jane Maienschein, Arizona State University

At the intersections of biology and society, scholars have long been exploring ethical, legal, policy, economic, and other social issues, while also placing emerging science in the context of history and philosophy of science. The question here is: is there anything new under the sun? Are there special features of astrobiology that call for new thinking? This paper begins to frame the question and point to possible answers, but does not pretend to answer it; that task should be undertaken by a larger group.

“Searching for Extraterrestrial Life: Coping with Discovery by Considering Potential Risks” - Margaret Race, SETI Institute

Even as we search for life beyond Earth, it is clear that a verified discovery could challenge foundational understanding and interpretations in many fields. This presentation adopts a risk-management perspective to examine issues and questions associated with searches for microbial, complex or intelligent life beyond Earth. It also highlights areas where societal concerns may arise in the form of protests or demands for public participation in decision making about applied science and technology.

“An Astrobiological App for a Technological Society” – Eric Chaisson, Harvard University

The search for life in the Universe grants us greater awareness of our own problems here on Earth. Without any unambiguous evidence yet that extraterrestrial life exists elsewhere in the Universe, we have a moral obligation to ensure that intelligent life on our planet does not end. Astrobiology points us toward, nay demands, a solar economy. It also suggests a potential solution to the Fermi paradox, based on a principle of cosmic selection that limits technological intelligence in time as well as in space: those advanced life-forms anywhere in the Universe that adopt the energy of their parent star will likely survive, and those that don’t, won’t.


“The Allure of Alien Life: From Microbes to Intelligence” – Linda Billings, National Institute of Aerospace

This paper will consider popular representations of extraterrestrial life – both single-celled and intelligent – in their cultural context. How does the cultural environment affect these representations? How does the political economy of the mass media industry shape these representations? How does the human psyche influence these representations? Finally, this paper will address a question of value judgment: is it more productive to engage people’s interest in astrobiology by blurring the boundaries between ET and ETI or by explaining the differences between the two pursuits?

Discussion + Q&A

4:05 - 4:15

Steven J. Dick, NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology

Twitter icon   See insights and analysis from the panelists on Twitter: #PrepareToDiscover


A live webcast of the symposium will be accessible. Open any Internet browser and visit https://ac.arc.nasa.gov/loc. Choose the option to Enter as a Guest, type your name in the field, and click Enter Room. Live chat will be enabled during the broadcast. Please keep comments kind, courteous and on point.

Twitter icon   Follow the conversation on Twitter: #PrepareToDiscover

A recorded and captioned webcast will be posted in the months after the event.

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