The broadcast is widely remembered for creating public panic, although to what extent is hotly debated today. Still, the incident serves as an illustration of what could happen when the first life beyond Earth is discovered. While scientists might be excited by the prospect, introducing the public, politicians and interest groups to the idea could take some time.
Steven Dick Astrobiologist
and Historian with NASA
To Dick, even the discovery of microbes would be a profound shift for science. "If we found microbes, it would have an effect on science, especially biology, by universalizing biology," he said. "We only have one case of biology on Earth. It's all related. It's all DNA-based. If we found an independent example on Mars or Europa, we have a chance of forming a universal biology."
Dick points out that even the possibilities of extraterrestrial fossils could change our viewpoints, such as the ongoing discussion of ALH84001, a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica that erupted into public consciousness in 1996 after a Science article said structures inside of it could be linked to biological activity.
The conclusion, which is still debated today, led to congressional hearings. "I've done a book about discovery in astronomy, and it's an extended process," Dick pointed out. "It's not like you point your telescope and say, 'Oh, I made a discovery.' It's always an extended process: You have to detect something, you have to interpret it, and it takes a long time to understand it. As for extraterrestrial life, the Mars rock showed it could take an extended period of years to understand it."
In his year at the Library of Congress, Dick spent time searching for historical examples (as well as historical analogies) of how humanity might deal with first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization.
History shows that contact with new cultures can go in vastly different directions. Hernan Cortes' treatment of the Aztecs is often cited as an example of how wrong first contact can go.
But there were other efforts that were a little more mutually beneficial, although the outcomes were never perfect. Fur traders in Canada in the 1800s worked closely with Native Americans, for example, and the Chinese treasure fleet of the 15th Century successfully brought its home culture far beyond its borders, perhaps even to East Africa.
The ethics of contact
"There is also the question of what I call astro-ethics," Dick said. "How do you treat alien life? How do you treat it differently, ranging from microbes to intelligence? So we had a philosopher at our symposium talking about the moral status of non-human organisms, talking in relation to animals on Earth and what their status is in relation to us."
Dick plans to collect the lectures in a book for publication next year.