Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Spreading the News

Whenever science makes a discovery, the devil grabs it while the angels are debating the best way to use it. ~Alan Valentine

So, the other day I was discussing how the Viking landers may have found life on Mars after all. When I think about finding life on other planets, I think in terms of how exciting it would be. Apparently, there are other people who are concerned about the concept. In fact, not too long ago, an article appeared that held that a policy was needed by NASA to provide guidance on how best to inform the ignorant masses that life had been discovered on another world. The centerpiece of the article is the brouhaha that surrounded our old friend, ALH84001.

When scientists announced that they thought they had found signs of microbial presence in the Martian meteorite, they were all over the news. As I discussed in my earlier article, there came to be considerable debate about what they found, and ultimately, it was held to be inorganic. Yet, when additional claims for that meteorite showing signs of bacterial activity and, even more recently, similar tracks were found in another Martian meteorite, the media at large ignored it.

The biggest difference is that NASA made a big deal the first time, with a press conference (which was hastily moved up due to a leak) and lots of hoopla. The more recent findings have simply been released by the researchers, with no press briefing, no media glare, just a paper to a scientific audience.

Of course, none of the evidence, including the new view of the Viking data, is definitive. All of it is open to other interpretations. What we need is to bring back some chunks of Mars that haven't been baked coming through the atmosphere and examine them in a proper lab. There was such a mission on the books, but, thanks to NASA's shuffling of money to the shuttle (and to the commercial rocket kiddies), it's been shelved.

Should there be a change of heart (and head) in Washington, the mission could be back. Should life be discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt, NASA has concerns about disseminating that information. On one level, premature release of findings could prove embarrassing should it turn out, for example, that results were skewed by terrestrial contamination. On another level, there seems to be a fear of panic in the streets.

Perhaps there's some cause for their caution. Given the state of reportage today, the first thing out of the media's collective mouth would be “PLAGUE!” or something similar. Reporters would be quoting from “The Andromeda Strain” and the end of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds”, to show how when a life form meets bacteria from another world, the bacteria win.

By the way, has it ever bothered anyone else that Wells' Martians died from Earth's bacteria but no hunans were felled by the Martians' bacteria?

Considering that Martian meteorites have been falling to Earth for countless millennia and that we've found that bacteria can survive extreme conditions like those in space, we should have all turned green and died by now. Proper precautions should be taken, most certainly, but it should be as much to protect any possible Martian life as much as to avoid plague and catastrophe.

Of course, the possibility exists that, somewhere out there, there are life forms considerably beyond the bacteria stage. According to a recent article, we should be careful about trying to contact them. Apparently, some folks feel that, in projects like SETI, we might be inviting the Vogon Constructor Fleet to show up and build a hyperspace bypass.

I suppose that's natural given our own human history. We haven't done all that well when discovering new civilizations. It seems like, after an all too brief honeymoon period, one side decides that the other has to conform to its idea of civilization. This usually ends up with one or both of them severely dead.

I've written about the odds (here and here) of actually contacting other civilizations, the upshot of which was that it's a long shot. Even if we do manage to receive a signal from way out there, as things stand now, the conversations will be extremely slow. Personally, I'm not worried that Ming the Merciless is going to be showing up any day soon.

UFO fans, it goes without saying, would argue that aliens have been showing up for years, but I'm trying to stick to reality here.

I can't help having the nagging feeling that what worries people is not that the Galactic Empire is going to show up with a fleet to enslave us. What they're worried about is humanity losing its exalted position at the center of the universe. Every religion makes humans the central creation of God (or the gods, depending on your persuasion); finding out that there are sentient beings on a rock circling 51 Peg or wherever is going to seriously rock some people's psyches.

It's hard to imagine how the general populace will react. In some theories, people will be panicked or distressed; in others, people, realizing we are just one aggregation of beings among many others. Perhaps, they would work to find ways to go meet those beings.

I really don't know how the majority of people will react. I do know that working out some convoluted means of distributing the news will only sow confusion and possible distress. Just tell us what you're finding, NASA and other searchers. Don't sugarcoat it, and don't overhype it. If you find bugs on Mars, show them to us. If ET calls, display the message.

Most of us are all grown up; we can handle it. The rest will just have to deal.

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