Congress has always been friendly to technology, right? I mean, those guys love Google Glass and robots. OK, maybe there’s been a few hiccups, but yesterday the House Science Committee spent two hours discussing the search for extraterrestrial life.
The House brought three experts to the hearing, which was called Astrobiology: The Search for Biosignatures in Our Solar System and Beyond. The committee brought together astrobiologist Dr. Mary Voytek, planetary scientist Dr. Sara Seagar, and astrobiolgist Dr. Steven J. Dick. The committee members asked wide-ranging questions, from the abstract (would astrobiology inspire young folks to enter STEM) to the very pointed (what the biggest threat is to life on Earth?). The discussion, of course, led to the potential for extraterrestrial life, to which Seager answered, "the question is: Is there life near here, in our neighborhood of stars? We think the chances are good.”
While the hearing might not have solved the burning question of the existence of extraterrestrial life, it did allow Dick to eloquently explain why SETI, the search for extraterrestrial life, matters. Below is what he said. It’s a wall of text, but it’s worth reading.
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.
We can only hope our technology-loving government agrees.