Big Questions about life in the universe

I traveled to the Swedish island of Ven in September for a two-day symposium on the history and philosophy of astrobiology. If you’re thinking, “Yawn…,” wake up! Ideas flew fast and furiously among the 60 participants, and after two days we all felt like our heads were going to explode. That’s the mark of a successful scholarly gathering, in my book.

Ven is where 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe – famous for his “Terra Nova” (a.k.a. “De Nova Stella”) treatise on the organization of the universe – built his observatory-cum-castle (Ven was then Danish). It’s small, quiet, lovely – a perfect place for peaceful contemplation and vigorous dialogue. Our meeting was organized by Lund University’s Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies (named after 17th century Swedish scholar Samuel von Pufendorf, not the double-f Hogwart’s school).

Steve Dick, former NASA chief historian and leading historian of astrobiology in the U.S., opened the symposium with a talk identifying “critical issues in the history and philosophy of astrobiology” – for example, what is the status of astrobiology as a science (field, discipline, other)? What, exactly, is “life”? Or intelligence? Questions Dick posed that are of greatest interest to me are: What are the sources of the diversity of attitudes and assumptions of different scientific communities about astrobiology? What are the sources of the public “will to believe” in extraterrestrial life, especially ET intelligent life? Why do so many Americans reject the theory of evolution while so many believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life?

Thanks to the work of other scholars at the meeting, I learned a lot about the history of panspermia theory – a topic of current interest and aggravation* to me. Panspermia is the idea that life began somewhere unspecified in the universe and spread from there throughout the universe, explaining the origin of life on Earth. According to the European Space Agency’s Rene Demets, while Charles Darwin never wrote a word about panspermia, his Origin of Species played a key role in the development of panspermia theory, with leading European scientists “spinning” Darwin’s ideas to fit their own views about life in the universe.

From Lund University’s Gustav Holmberg, I learned about Swedish “ancestors” of Carl Sagan – Svante Arrhenius and Knut Lundmark, prominent scientists of the 1920s and ‘30s who extended the scientific dialogue about life in the universe into the popular discourse. I also learned a lot more about the history of astrobiology from astronomer/historian Milan Cirkovic of the University of Belgrade. For his animated and engaging speaking style and the breadth and depth of his explorations into astrobiology in culture, I dubbed Milan “the Carl Sagan of Serbia.”

From astronomer/astrobiologist/historian Woody Sullivan of the University of Washington, we heard a review of possible principles for exploring a solar system that may contain extraterrestrial microbial life and a recommendation to adopt – sooner rather than later – a “planetocentric” protocol on environmental protection in the solar system, based on the guiding principle of avoiding physical and biological harm to any planetary body/ecosystem. Our discussions extended to the ongoing search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, with the SETI Institute’s Doug Vakoch demonstrating the difficulties involved in cross-cultural communication among humans and the problematic nature of human schemes to communicate with extraterrestrial cultures.

I suspect that I’ve not conveyed the richness of our two days of dialogue in this brief post. I hope I’ve succeeded in conveying the richness of the intellectual territory we call the history and philosophy (and the sociology) of astrobiology.


* The current “strong panspermia” camp – the True Believers who insist that life was delivered to Earth from outer space – and the intelligent-design camp have some interests in common and, it appears, some collaborative relationships – a topic worthy of further research.


One Response to “Big Questions about life in the universe”

  1. ER 13065 Says:

    Interesting. But what is curious for me is the fact that to suggest the panspermia theory of OOL is “cool” and “sophisticated”, but if somebody suggests that what might be the source of life is a Supranatural source i.e. a Life with a capital L (God?) then that’s taboo and that that’s religion and only religious nutjobs think that. Why is that? Scientism at work!

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