Are we alone in the universe? This is the central question posed by a new book edited by scientists at the University of Arizona.
"Encountering Life in the Universe: Ethical Foundations and Social Implications of Astrobiology" is a compilation of works by authors ranging from philosophers and theologians to astronomers and astrobiologists, edited by UA researchers and writers and published by the University of Arizona Press. The book explores the ethical and societal implications of finding life elsewhere in the universe.
There are likely to be billions of inhabitable worlds in our Milky Way galaxy, said Chris Impey, UA distinguished professor and deputy head of the UA Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory, who is an editor of the book. As our ability to study and potentially communicate with these planets improves year by year, the research begs the question, Impey says: What if some of them are inhabited?
"I've asked as many researchers in this field as I can, what do they really think," Impey said. "And most of them say within five to 10 years we'll probably find life elsewhere."
As technologies for space exploration and communication improve by leaps and bounds, the astrobiology community grows ever more excited.
In 2003, in this environment of growing interest in astrobiology research and implications, the UA was awarded a five-year grant from NASA's Astrobiology Institute, titled "Life and Planets Astrobiology Center, LAPLACE." Out of this grant, the UA's Center for Astrobiology was born.
"As part of the Center for Astrobiology's mission, we decided to hold workshops about different topics," said Anna Spitz, who leads communication and public engagement for the UA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission. Spitz edited the book with Impey and William Stoeger, a senior staff scientist at the Vatican Observatory Research Group, hosted by the UA's Steward Observatory.
"The first workshop we decided to hold was about the ethical implications of astrobiological research," Spitz said.
The idea for the book arose from the first conference of philosophers and scientists, held at the UA in 2008, on the ethical implications of astrobiology.
"There didn’t seem to be a lot of other books that dealt with these issues at the time," Spitz said.
"We wanted to recognize that if we find life elsewhere it's not just going to be a second version of biology, it's going to raise a whole set of other issues," Impey said. "For example, do we have the right to mine or alter other worlds? Do we have the right to mess up our own planet?"
Contributing authors discuss questions of how to behave in the universe, how we should treat inhabitants of other planets if or when we reach them, whether or not we have a right to make use of their resources, and perhaps most importantly, how will we relate to other life forms, intelligent or otherwise, if we encounter them?
"Another issue comes from the nature of life," Impey said. "If we find life elsewhere and it's not the same as life here, it could inform us about biology in ways that helps us think about new strategies against disease, or it could be a threat such as a pathogen. And are we licensed to use or fundamentally alter that other form of life, as we do with life here?"
"The common theme that I see in this book is several of the authors talk about the 'other' and that sense of how you interact with the 'other,' whether it's the 'other' from a different solar system or a different continent, or a different country," Spitz said. "There's this constant theme of how you value the 'other.'"
"Each of the astrobiology issues reflects back on us at some level," Impey said. "That's why they're interesting questions."
"The diversity of astrobiology-related research is pretty amazing, from people studying deep sea life, to the SETI Institute, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, to scholarship on some of the ethical and philosophical issues," Impey said.
He added: "The book is very accessible for a general audience. We wanted this book to appeal to the general public as a resource for them to learn about current issues in astrobiology."
"We hope the book also encourages other physical scientists to think about some of these issues, about the larger implications of their particular areas of research," Spitz said. "We felt it's time to begin a serious dialogue about how humans should treat other worlds if we land on them, and how to relate to other life forms if we encounter them."