On this past July 22nd, a happy bit of serendipity came my way as I was multitasking over lunch: eating, reading the paper and listening to CBC radio. The latter is seemingly a 24 /7 habit for me as I “feed” my obsession with current and interesting news and information that I find that only public radio actually delivers. I was tuned into the science show “Quirks and Quarks –always worth a listen- but my ears really perked up when I heard mention of a newly released book ” All These Worlds Are Yours” by a British Columbia based astronomer. Of course, being a huge Arthur C. Clarke fan, I instantly recognized the phrase from the closing paragraph in Clarke’s sequel to his iconic novel, “2001: A Space Odyssey ” —appropriately titled “2010″. If you’re a Clarke fan, you will know what that refers to and that the book is about the scientific search for life beyond earth. After I listened to the interview (available at the “Quirks and Quarks” archive on their website and I highly recommend that you have a listen ) , I knew that I would reach out to Dr. Willis to see if I could arrange an interview. I also ordered the book, which I just received and haven’t had a chance to get into) but it will definitely be part of my ongoing reference library on this subject.
One of the things that intrigued me most about the CBC interview was Jon’s statement that ” in an infinite universe, life is not only a possibility; life is a certainty.” I knew that, as a scientist, this observation is solid,empirical and based on data rather than the more philosophical approach of people like me. Which, I have to admit, is often perceived as light weight at best and “flakey” at worst by the scientific community. When I asked Jon at the beginning of our interview if he was a person of faith and he said that he wasn’t but added “that doesn’t mean I’m dismissive”, I knew that I had the right person for this interview. I immediately liked his respectful tone and sensed that he would provide some thoughtful and meaningful insight into this debate. And he didn’t disappoint 🙂
Because Jon’s book focuses on the top candidates for where life may be found within our solar system (Mars, Titan, Enceladus and Europa if you are curious and not in that order), I assumed that he has considered the impact of that discovery from various perspectives. So I asked him if he felt that the scientific community is giving enough thought to the societal ( whether it be philosophical or religious ) impact of that discovery and his response was fascinating.
“As a scientist.” he told me, ” We are taught to look at data and not speculate. And we just don’t have any data as to how people would react.” But, as he said, we can look back through history at the public’s response to major iconic events that have occurred, whether it be the assassination of JFK or the moon landing for the baby boom generation or for the younger generation,the question would be -where were you on September on 9/11? I found myself smiling when he said that the next question may well be “Where were you when life was discovered on Enceladus? ” ( spoiler alert: the number one candidate in his opinion ) But, as we discussed during the interview, it’s probably a pretty safe bet that people’s response will have a lot to do with the nature of that contact. For example, we can safely speculate that the public’s response to something like finding oxygen in the atmosphere of an exoplanet, even though that would be an incredible scientific find , would impact people far less than a signal from an intelligent civilization. I was impressed with Jon’s insight into people and behavior when he pointed out that it really depends on your level of interest and that people who are not especially interested in the scientific implications of finding oxygen in the atmosphere of another planet, will simply turn the page, both literally and metaphorically, and move on to something that captures their attention. And I couldn’t agree more.
“Depending on the level of contact, I’m not sure how much of a big deal it will be for people” he says.
He goes on to tell me that an approach that he uses with his students involves discussing and being aware of the difference between what is plausible and what is possible. Basically, each of these scenarios, whether it be oxygen on another planet or an ET message, are plausible, but as to whether they are possible or probable, Jon feels that ” we just don’t know.” And anyone who says that they do know, in Jon’s opinion, are simply not telling the truth. I found his honesty and directness refreshing 🙂
And going back to the concept of how we tell our stories, Jon also points out that how the media would handle such a discovery would have a tremendous impact, obviously, on the public ‘s reaction. And, noting how they often sensationalize stories that later drop out of sight when they become less dramatic, he confesses to being quite cynical about how such an announcement would play out in the popular media. And I suspect that there are many people who would agree with him on that.
Jon tells me that he is aware, though, that there are some “high thinking” people who are giving thought to this matter and he related an interesting story about hiking in the Rockies last summer. Joking about the “random people you meet on the trail”, he told me about meeting another professor who had just come from a conference (sponsored by the Templeton Foundation) on the human impact of alien contact. And while he recognizes the importance of this kind of discussion to the field of Astrobiology, he feels that a lot of it is just “navel gazing” and he is skeptical of anyone who claims that there will a huge impact on society in any identifiable way. However, it goes back to the nature of the contact and how “big “it is. People may not pay a lot of attention when they hear that evidence of life has been found on a distant planet as opposed to the news of an ET craft landing on the lawn of the White House.
“That’s pretty hard to ignore ” Jon wryly point out.
When I asked Jon if , as a scientist, this is an area that he gives any thought to, he said that he does but (wisely ) realizes the limitations of thinking about it.
” I’m more in the group of people who say –let’s devote our energies to actually finding something and then we can work out what the impact is” he says. And I completely respect that kind of pragmatism!
I concluded our interview by asking Jon for his thoughts on the communication process of how the announcement of such a discovery should be made and by whom. He feels that he nature of the communication would obviously depend on the level of contact and that just makes sense. But, regardless of whether the discovery is microbial or intelligent life, he feels strongly that the announcement should be made public. As a matter of fact, he told me that SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has a strong and clear policy that any message they receive would be made public, although I suspect that some conspiracy theorists might dispute that. But all scientists ,he says, will tell you that any scientific information about the possibility of ET life should absolutely be made public! An admirable and transparent stand from the scientific community, for sure, but Jon also points out that if the military were to become aware of such a message, he guesses that it would be up to them what they do with it..Hmmmm🙂
I was very appreciative of the time that Jon Willis so generously afforded me for this discussion. As a scientist, researcher, teacher, writer and science communicator, his schedule is no doubt very full and he certainly didn’t have to make time for me. I enjoyed our discussion immensely and not only related to his passion for this subject but his refreshing honesty and straightforward manner—I give a special respect to experts who are willing to say ” we just don’t know”..Do check out his book as it is a current, up to date and accessible summary of the scientific search for life beyond our planet- where we are and where we are going. If you have an interest in this area, you owe it to yourself to have a copy of this book on your bookshelf.
As for my own reflections on how people will be impacted by the discovery of ET life, I concur with much of what Dr. Willis said. It obviously will have a lot to do with the nature of that contact, how dramatic it is, and how it is presented in the media. But at the end of the day, most people lead very insular lives and I don’t mean that as a criticism. We all have to focus on paying our mortgages, buying food, raising our families and sometimes, just surviving on a daily basis. I understand that not everyone is as obsessed with this topic as I am. My friend Susan says that we have so much in common because we are both star gazers and navel gazers:) I do ponder what that moment in time will be like when “life” is discovered and what it will “mean” to know that we are not alone in the Universe but I also “get” that many people will stop for a few minutes, say “cool” (or not) and then go on with their day. But as Jon Willis says, we can speculate but we won’t really know until it actually happens.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this so please join the conversation if you have a moment. What do you think that moment will be like and can you speculate/imagine what would go through your mind ?
Peace and Light