In a refreshingly pro-science move, the House Science Committee set aside two hours yesterday to discuss the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life. The ensuing conversation was fascinating, but at times infuriating, with the experts discussing everything from alien biosignatures to the possibility that we're being watched.
The hearing, called "Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in Our Solar System and Beyond," was set up to examine the burgeoning field of astrobiology and the search for biosignatures in our solar system and beyond. To that end, the U.S. House of Representatives brought together three experts, all PhDs: Mary Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters; Sara Seager, Professor of Physics and of Planetary Science at M.I.T. (whose work we featured earlier this year); and Steven J. Dick, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology, Library of Congress (who we've also talked about here at io9).
The Republican-dominated House Committee centered many of their questions on the issue of whether astrobiology could be an inspiration for young people to get involved in science and engineering. The witnesses were even asked how they got into astrobiology.
Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla) even asked the witnesses what they considered to be the greatest danger to life on Earth. Perhaps he was wondering if extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) might pose a threat. The panelists' answers included asteroids, overpopulation, and somewhat inexplicably, the quest for energy resources. Regrettably, this subject is outside their area of expertise, and their answers reflected as much.
But when they got down to the crux of the topic at hand, the witnesses advocated for increased funding into astrobiology and SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. They asked for investments in space telescopes, like the James Webb telescope scheduled for 2018, to detect chemical signatures of life in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets.
They also discussed the possibility of intelligent life. Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Tex.) asked, "Do you think there's life out there, and are they studying us? And what do they think about New York City?" The question was clearly about intelligent life, and not microbial life.
Seager was reluctant to speculate about ETIs, and dodgingly said, "The question is: Is there life near here, in our neighborhood of stars? We think the chances are good." To be fair, her speciality is in detecting chemical biosignatures, not intelligent life. Voytek gave a rather perplexing and unimaginative answer, saying "Whether they're looking at New York or some small town in Indiana, the diversity of life here and the way that we live our lives is phenomenal, and I think it goes all the way down from humans to microbes."
Even Dick's answer was restrained, saying "I think the guiding principle holds that what's happened here has happened elsewhere in our huge universe." Which is a surprisingly lame answer coming from him. This is the same guy who's said that biological intelligence is the exception, not the rule. In a post-biological universe, says Dick, machines are the dominant form of intelligence. Perhaps Dick was dumbing-it-down for a Congress mostly interested in knowing if they should fund ongoing endeavors in astrobiology.
Thankfully, Dick made the pitch for increased government funding for SETI (which in all fairness was outside the scope of the hearing). Here's an excerpt from his testimony:
One of the most appealing characteristics of astrobiology is that the discipline forces us to ask questions that put in perspective our place in the universe: What are life, consciousness, and intelligence in a universal context, and what are the metaphysical assumptions that underlie our understanding of these concepts? Is there a general theory of living systems, a universal biology as there is a universal physics? What are culture and civilization? What is our place in the 13.8 billionyear unfolding of cosmic evolution? Some of these questions bearing on consciousness and intelligence are beyond the scope of the current NASA astrobiology program, but they are nevertheless an important part of the search for life in the universe. Almost exactly twenty years ago, in the same session that saw the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider, the 103rd Congress terminated the NASA Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program.
In addition to a renewed search with the latest technology, the reinstatement of funding for SETI would allow a systematic examination of these intriguing questions. It would also repair the artificial programmatic divorce between the search for microbial and intelligent life, which, despite engaging different scientific communities, are part of the same research problem. And I believe SETI would be supported by the public, which as always is interested in life beyond Earth, whether microbial or intelligent.
The latest White House budget calls for $17.7 billion for NASA, a slight decrease from 2012.
"You've pretty much indicated [the discovery of] life on other planets is inevitable," Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., told the witnesses. "It's just a matter of time and funding."
Images: Stephane Guisard/ESO, Melina Mara/The Washington Post.
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