AAAS, 2010, “Are We All There Is?”



“50 Years of Exobiology and Astrobiology:

Past, Present, and Future Life in the Universe”

Saturday February 20, 8:30-11:30 AM

San Diego Convention Center, Room 10

2010 AAAS Annual Meeting

San Diego, CA

Are We All There Is?

Astrobiology in Culture

Linda Billings, Ph.D.

Research Professor, School of Media and Public Affairs

George Washington University, Washington, DC


The questions that define astrobiology as a scientific endeavor (Where do we come from? Are we alone? Where are we going?) are multidisciplinary in nature and have broad appeal to public audiences as well as to the scientific community.  This paper considers astrobiology in both scientific culture and popular culture.

In 1960 the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established an exobiology program to fund research into the origin and evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Today, NASA’s Astrobiology Program, which includes an element focusing on exobiology and evolutionary biology, funds trans-disciplinary research into the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. It is a multidisciplinary field drawing on knowledge and expertise in astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth and planetary sciences, physics and many hybrid or sub- disciplines. Astrobiology also involves studies in the humanities and social sciences.

While the term “astrobiology” may seem relatively new, the science encompassed by the field of astrobiology is not new. Scientific study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe was well under way before NASA was established in 1958. For example, the theory of cosmic evolution predates the 20th century, the theory of chemical evolution leading to the origin of life dates back to the 1920s, and laboratory synthesis of amino acids under simulated early-Earth conditions first took place in 1953. The idea that life might exist beyond Earth is thousands of years old. The idea of searching scientifically for evidence of extraterrestrial life is as old as the Space Age.

As soon as it became clear that nations would start launching spacecraft to explore our solar system, scientists started talking about how they might take advantage of access to space to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life and how this endeavor fit in with ongoing research into the origin and evolution of life on Earth.

One of those scientists was Joshua Lederberg, who is widely credited with coining the term “exobiology.” Lederberg was one of the first beneficiaries of NASA’s Exobiology Program, receiving funding to develop a device for conducting biochemical analyses of soil samples. He served as a member of the Biology Team for NASA’s Viking mission to Mars. As early as 1957, Lederberg was communicating with colleagues in the scientific community about the possibility of searching for evidence of ET life. Lederberg quickly became a key player in the field of exobiology.

In 1958, the year that NASA was formed, Lederberg, at age 33, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. That same year, Science published an article coauthored by Lederberg making the case

for studying lunar dust as a “record of cosmic history” that might yield information about “the biochemical origins of life.” In 1960, Lederberg gave a talk on exobiology at a meeting of the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

Later that year, Science magazine published an article by Lederberg, then a professor of genetics at Stanford University, based on his COSPAR talk. The article was entitled “Exobiology: experimental approaches to life beyond Earth,” and it was later published in a National Academy of Sciences report on “Science in Space.” In this article, Lederberg wrote: ““…’Life’ until now has meant only terrestrial life…biological science has been the rationalization of particular facts, and we have had all too limited a basis for the construction and testing of meaningful axioms to support a theory of life…. made the case that “Exobiology is no more fantastic than the realization of space travel itself, and we have a grave responsibility to explore its implications for science and for human welfare with our best scientific insights and knowledge.”

Thus, by 1960, thanks to Lederberg and his colleagues, exobiology had a well articulated rationale that embedded this line of research firmly in the context of the broader scientific enterprise.

At the same time, some of Lederberg’s peers espoused a minority view that exobiology was not “real science.” In 1964, for example,

George Gaylord Simpson, then a professor of vertebrate paleontology at Harvard University, disagreed with Lederberg in the pages of Science, critiquing what he described as “the view that life exists not only elsewhere but even everywhere in the cosmos.”

You can get a good idea of Simpson’s thinking on the subject simply from the title of his article: “The nonprevalence of humanoids: we can learn more about life from terrestrial forms than we can from hypothetical extraterrestrial forms.” Simpson argued, “We are now spending billions of dollars a year and an enormously disproportionate part of our badly needed engineering and scientific manpower on space programs. The prospective discovery of extraterrestrial life is advanced as one of the major reasons, or excuses, for this….. What we are doing resembles a wild spree more than a sober scientific program.”

Echoes of Simpson’s arguments may be heard in the science community from time to time, but they are faint, and the field of astrobiology now includes a few more Nobelists, many members of the National Academy of Sciences, and other widely recognized researchers. Such credentials lend considerable weight to the legitimacy of any field of scientific endeavor, and they play an especially important role in the establishment of new, boundary-bending lines of research.

In 1959, NASA funded its first exobiology investigation, a life-detection experiment developed for the Viking mission to Mars. (This investigation ultimately did not fly, due to weight limitations.) In 1960, NASA established an exobiology program, providing relatively small grants for studies then considered out toward the edge but still inside the boundaries of legitimate science.

By the 1980s, as urged by the scientific community, NASA had expanded its exobiology program to encompass studies of evolutionary biology. In the 1990s NASA again expanded the boundaries of this program, renaming it “astrobiology” to encompass exobiology, evolutionary biology, and astronomy and astrophysics as they relate to the study of the origin of life in the universe and the formation, evolution, and potential habitability of extrasolar planets.

In parallel with the development of the science of astrobiology, popular interest in the subject of extraterrestrial life continued to thrive.  While scientific interest in life beyond Earth goes back as far as science does, scholarly and popular interest in the subject goes back to some of the earliest civilizations on Earth.

Alien life in science fiction literature goes back as far as the second century A.D., when Lucian of Samosata, a Greek-speaking Syrian, wrote True History – “the earliest known fiction about travelling to outer spacealienlife-forms and interplanetary warfare” according to that reliable source Wikipedia.

In 1752, Voltaire published Micromégas, a short story about beings from Saturn and a planet orbiting Sirius visiting the Earth.

The earliest notable Bengali science fiction was Jagadananda Roy‘sShukra Bhraman (Travels to Venus), published in 1879 – featured alien life on Uranus.

In Georges Melies’ 1902 film, “Le Voyage dans La Lune,” humans on a rocket crash into “the Man in the Moon” and encounter intelligent indigenous lunar life – the Selenites. This film was based on Jules Verne’s 1865 sci-fi novel From the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells’ 1901 novelFirst Men on the Moon.

We saw alien life in the German film “Frau im Mond” in 1929 and in the Soviet film “Aelita: Queen of Mars” in 1924. In the 1930s we saw all sorts of weird humanoid alien life in the Flash Gordon serials. The 1940s brought us alien life in the form and in the world of Superman.

The post-Bomb 1950s brought a steady stream of sci-fi movies about extraterrestrial life: “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951, based on a sci-fi short story published in 1940), “The Thing” (1951), “War of the Worlds” (1953, based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel), “Earth Vs. the Fying Saucers” (1956), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), “The Angry Red Planet” (1959), and more.

The 1960s brought us alien life and alien worlds in “2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and “Star Trek” on TV.

Sci-fi films of the 1970s continued to explore alien worlds and alien life: “Star Wars” (1977), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972, based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of 1961), the beginning of the “Star Trek” film series, and the first installment of the “Alien” trilogy (1979).

In the 1980s, we had “E.T. The Extraterrestrial” (1982), and the 1990s brought alien life to life in “Men in Black” (1997), “Contact” (1997), and “Independence Day” (1996).

Here at the end of this first decade of the 21st century, the idea of ET life is as popular as ever – I’d guess that anyone with cable TV could find a “Star Trek” film or episode on the air, somewhere, 24/7.

At the same time, the field of astrobiology is growing rapidly, the pace of discovery is brisk, and the possibility of ET life is now a serious scientific question inside and outside the scientific community.

In scientific culture, astrobiology is a well established, credible and legitimate field of study (though not a discipline, at least not yet). As the leading U.S. arbiter of scientific legitimacy, the National Academy of Sciences has played a significant role, by paying close attention to and providing validation for exobiology and astrobiology over the past 50 years. International scientific boundary tenders such as the Committee on Space Research of the International Council for Science and the International Astronomical Union have also contributed to establishing and sustaining astrobiology as “real science.”

Outside the scientific community, astrobiology is virtually a household word, and even people who might say they do not know what astrobiology is may be engaged with the work that astrobiologists do.

This enduring and widespread public interest in the origin and evolution of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial life is both a blessing and a curse. This broad, deep, cross-cultural engagement with the subject adds strength to the scientific rationale for astrobiology research and provides a great opportunity to foster science education with people of all ages.

A challenge to improving public understanding of astrobiology is that the scientific definition of astrobiology is not necessarily the same as the public conception of astrobiology.

As physics and astrophysics, chemistry and biology have expanded their boundaries and become more complex, scientific views on life and the universe have grown more complex.

Findings, claims, and theories relating to the physical universe now encompass concepts of phenomena that – at best – may only be observed indirectly – for example, dark matter and dark energy, parallel universes and multiverses, and “weird life” that may be nothing like terrestrial life. This rapidly expanding volume and complexity of scientific knowledge makes it difficult for non-experts to comprehend the physical world the same ways that scientists do. Even scientists may have a hard time keeping up with advances in fields other than their own.

One aspect of the study of the origin and evolution of life in the universe that scientists have not yet found a way to adequately explain to non-expert audiences is the vast knowledge void that remains to be filled between scientific understanding of the emergence of life and the emergence of intelligence in life. Non-experts have far less trouble than scientists do in condensing and simplifying the immense “spaces” of time and complexity that lead to prebiotic chemistry and then to life, to molecules and then to cells, and to microbial life and then to intelligent life. They do this not because they’re ignorant but mainly because they are not scientists. They are not trained to think like scientists. And persuasive arguments have been put forth they do not need to be.

The terms “astrobiology” and “SETI” – the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – are both widely recognized inside and outside the scientific community. What these terms mean to people outside the community is something that members of the scientific community might do well to understand better than they appear to….

Continuing interest in the subject of astrobiology contributes to demand for popular depictions of life in the universe that are not always scientifically sound. Adding to the complexity of the “educational challenge” facing astrobiology is that, for experts and non-experts as well, a wide range of opinions exists on exactly what “life” is, and what “intelligence” is. The shelves of libraries and bookstores are full of books about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life – for experts, non-experts, children, college students, for every conceivable audience. There is also, of course, a vast body of film and television takes on the scientific search for, and fictional encounters with, extraterrestrial life.

Many pop-culture takes on extraterrestrial life – more colloquially, aliens – appear to rest on the assumptions that extraterrestrial life is common and like us and that intelligence is a typical result of evolution. How might the scientific community improve public understanding of these subjects? How might clarity be provided?

The Library of Congress subject heading system provides a good illustration of how what astrobiology is, means, and does for non-experts can be pretty fuzzy.

The Library’s Science Reference Service publishes guides designed to help researchers find information on science and technology subjects. Exobiology and astrobiology are covered in the guide on “extraterrestrial life.” Library of Congress subject headings “under which books on [ET] life can be located” could be better….


To wrap up, consideration of astrobiology in the broader cultural environment points to some challenges for the scientific community.

Recent research findings that are relevant to astrobiology include evidence of past and perhaps present liquid water on Mars as well as an ice-covered liquid water ocean on Europa, the discovery of hundreds of extrasolar planets, observations of plumes of water-ice particles erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the possibility of prebiotic chemistry on and liquid water beneath the surface of Titan, and identification of new forms of microbial life in an ever-widening range of extreme Earth environments.

An increasing focus of planetary exploration missions on astrobiological questions likely will lead to an increasing public focus on astrobiology, worldwide. With regard to legitimacy and credibility, it is true that astrobiology has not yet yielded any evidence, or otherwise validated any claims, of the existence of extraterrestrial life. It is also the case that astrobiology remains a favorite topic in the popular media as well as in the science press. Discover magazine, the Discovery Channel, and The Learning Channel, and a growing archive of movies, television shows, and video games – have no qualms about ignoring the boundaries between astrobiology, SETI, and even UFOlogy.

The scientific endeavor of astrobiology is of great interest to a wide variety of public audiences, and this interest will grow as more and more astrobiology investigations are launched on a growing number of space exploration missions.

To reiterate, over the past 50 years, scientists have constructed a solid theoretical framework and conducted research and observations to support the idea of the possibility – and, for some scientists, the probability – of extraterrestrial life. NASA and other space agencies around the world take seriously the idea of extraterrestrial life, to the point where dedicated, multi-billion-dollar astrobiology missions are in development. Astrobiologists are identifying “biomarkers” that would be signals for the possible presence of ET life, as we know and as we don’t know life.

It’s useful to think about why astrobiology is popular, to consider the role or roles that astrobiology plays in mainstream or popular culture.

Some scientists are already participating in this dialogue. For example, the Vatican Observatory and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a “study week on astrobiology” in Rome this past November that drew many scientists and global media coverage. Last month, the U.K.’s Royal Society held a discussion meeting in London on the topic, “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society,” which also drew global media coverage.

We can interpret all this media attention as a reflection of broad public interest, or well-oiled press operations at the Vatican and the Society, or both.

In popular culture, however, interest in ET life is likely an indicator of more than “scientific” curiosity alone. Though bigotry, racism, and xenophobia are not socially sanctioned in contemporary American culture, they are not inoperative.  Some people need to have an enemy, and often the enemy is anybody perceived as “different.”

In a borderless world, Americans worry about “foreign” threats from all corners – including outer space, it seems. In the 21st century, it’s no longer socially acceptable to root for cowboys killing Indians.   But when star warriors kill aliens, it’s okay to applaud.

Does the ubiquity of alien life in popular culture have any relation to this nagging insecurity that seems to permeate everyday life?  Are aliens in the media making audiences feel insecure?  Or are media consumers seeking out “alien” content as opportunities for projecting insecurities onto the film or TV screen? In cheering over the defeat and destruction of fictional aliens, are people managing aspects of the self that are socially unacceptable?  Do people enjoy alien fantasies as an escape from “real life”? Do people take pleasure in kill-the-alien stories as archetypal struggles between good and evil? It’s probably at least a little bit of all of the above….

As the volume and complexity of scientific knowledge about the origins, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe grow, and as questions about the future of life in the universe continue to proliferate, astrobiologists will do well to be mindful of public interest in their research; consider why people are interested; and tend to the task of communicating clearly, and meaningfully, about their work.

Further reading: Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1984, 1987, 1998, 1999

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