What are some prominent NASA discoveries

A find of the century?

The cultural consequences of discovering extraterrestrial life

Some time ago the molecule phosphine was discovered in the atmosphere of Venus, which astrobiology regards as a weighty indicator for the existence of microbial life on our immediate neighboring planet. Nothing is proven by the discovery, but it is a strong indication that simple forms of life (microorganisms) exist outside of the earth could.

In our solar system, Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa as well as Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus are further candidates for extraterrestrial life. Its discovery is not only a central task today, but also a crucial knowledge horizon of astrobiology. Before a corresponding "hit", it finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being a science without empirically proven subject of investigation. At this point, however, we do not want to investigate the epistemological implications of this situation, but rather ask what the cultural consequences would be if one day scientific evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life were actually found.

So let's imagine that in a few years - or decades - living microorganisms will be discovered on Mars. We ask ourselves whether this event would also be significant outside of the directly involved sciences and what the possible cultural effects could be. In addition to the sciences themselves, we want to look at four cultural fields on which such a discovery could have consequences.

It seems obvious that the discovery of extraterrestrial life that has been proven not to originate from Earth is a milestone in the History of science would. At least it would undoubtedly be an epoch-making event for astrobiology itself. In our opinion, however, the impact on the scientific worldview in general would be less drastic than is claimed by many astrobiologists today. Our impression is that the enthusiasm for one's own subject is prematurely transferred to other sciences.

The discovery would not change anything in the paradigms and research programs of disciplines such as particle physics or behavioral biology. Indirectly, however, possibly in terms of their job opportunities. It could be that the already scarce resources of state and private research funding will be redistributed after such a discovery - towards an astrobiology that has finally found its subject empirically, and away from other sciences. The joy in many scientific professions about the "great discovery of astrobiology" could soon be followed by a moment of disillusionment when you notice that your own research resources are now becoming scarcer.

After all, some of the immediate neighboring disciplines of astrobiology could become secondary winners of the discovery - for example when it comes to complex automatic or even manned research missions to the location of extraterrestrial life, from which planetary geology or hydrology should benefit. For other, large-resource-consuming disciplines, on the other hand, the discovery could turn out to be unattractive if there were to be a large-scale relocation of financial resources - for example away from nuclear physics (exemplary keyword: fusion reactor) to the biosciences and expensive space missions.

Since even rich societies can only afford a limited number of extremely expensive research programs, we are dealing here with a zero-sum game: what is financially pumped into one research area is likely to be missing in the other. Accordingly, disputes between the scientific professions about the future distribution of funds are to be expected. And so it is quite conceivable that the importance of the find will be tried to minimize by those who could be the losers of the corresponding redistributions.

Here, however, it is primarily a question of competition among large-scale scientific projects - the social and cultural sciences should hardly be affected by these redistributions ... and, as almost always with space-related research, would rather be marginalized, the development of scientific thinking once again comment on this discovery with a critical attitude.

Significance for the worldview

But what does the discovery of life on Mars (or a similar place) mean for ours? Worldview As a general rule? At first glance it seems clear that such a find can be perfectly integrated into the scientific worldview - what had long been predicted by the science of astrobiology is now also proven by empirical findings. However, this representation overlooks the fact that for decades there has been a fierce scientific debate about the frequency of life in the universe: The astrobiological idea of ​​a widespread distribution is based on the thesis of a rare, perhaps even unique origin of life (only on earth - therefore: Rare Earth Hypothesis; see Ward / Brownlee 2000).

The discovery of life on Mars or one of Jupiter's moons could decide this debate. But this is not necessarily the case. The closer to earth the alien life is discovered, the more emphatically the proponents of a rare earth hypothesis can refer to the panspermia theory, according to which simple forms of life could have spread early within the solar system. And the knowledge we have accumulated over the last two decades (including through experiments on the international space station ISS) about the resilience of terrestrial organisms suggests that at least certain classes of unicellular organisms can withstand a longer journey through space - for example protected under the surface of a meteorite can.

Therefore, in spite of corresponding finds on other solar planets or moons, life can still only have originated once (on earth, for example) and then have spread in the solar system. How assertive this thesis is within science depends not least on a closer analysis of extraterrestrial life: Is it so similar to earthly life that it can have the same origins or are the differences so enormous that a common origin seems to be ruled out? The fact that the possibility of the existence of non-DNA / RNA-based life forms in the terrestrial biosphere is the subject of current research, would make a distinction here even more difficult.

Immediately after the discovery, the scientific discussion should pick up speed and fuel the debate in disciplines such as the philosophy of science, where fundamental problems of knowledge are dealt with. The main question here is under what conditions empirical evidence can be viewed as provided - and up to what point doubts are scientifically legitimate. All in all, however, it should be clear that the discovery would represent a strong argument for the thesis that life is widespread in the universe. It remains to be seen whether the representatives of a rare earth hypothesis will be satisfied with this.

In any case, a heated scientific debate about the spectacular find is to be expected. Whatever the outcome, the question of life outside the earth is likely to be at the center of scientific debates for at least some time. However, it will not be about new ideological positions, but about an intensive exchange of arguments that have long been known in the field - but now on the basis of new empirical findings.

However, the discovery of off-earth life could pose a problem for some religious systems. One should particularly think of those faiths whose teachings are based on the singular Creation of all living beings by a creator deity emanate from our homeworld and who, like charismatic Christian churches, adhere very strictly to this belief. It is questionable whether these belief systems will use the panspermia theory to save their teachings. The strategy is more likely to consist of passive ignorance or active denial of the scientific findings (a strategy that has long been known from other fields of science, such as paleontology or archeology).

In contrast to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, however, it cannot be assumed that the discovery of simple forms of life on neighboring worlds will lead to serious religious conflicts. Some belief systems will again contradict the scientific worldview - but this is neither a new phenomenon nor is it likely to have destabilizing effects on those religious worldviews. Tiny life forms invisible to the naked human eye are just too good to ignore, especially if they exist in a place far from Earth.

More open-minded or more moderate belief systems are likely to reinterpret the reading of their messages of salvation. "God created the earth with all its living beings" could probably be reinterpreted as "God created the universe with all its forms of life" without great theological problems. We therefore assume that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will not have any excessively strong consequences for the great earthly religions. Accordingly, the (inter) religious debates on this question should be kept within bounds. The earth itself presents enough problems to be debated within and between religions.

Influence on public discussion

We estimate the effects of the find on general social debates to be similarly manageable. The number of topics included in the Publicity can be processed in a prominent place is strictly limited. Usually there are only half a dozen topics that determine the public debate at a specific point in time.

Scientific questions rarely achieve this level of public attention. And if they do, their length of stay in the top positions of the media agenda is extremely short. With regard to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, there is even good empirical evidence for this: The discovery of alleged or actual - this question has not yet been scientifically decided - traces of life in the meteorite ALH 84001, which originally came from Mars. The discovery was made on August 7, 1996 by the then US -President Bill Clinton proudly announced - a procedure that spectacularly highlighted this discovery from the masses of scientific news at the time. In the years that followed, doubts about the discovery grew; the majority of astrobiologists today assume that Clinton's explanation was a little premature and that the supposed traces of life could have been caused by inorganic processes at least as well.

This scientific debate only really picked up speed when the news about life on Mars had already disappeared from the public agenda. The crash of the topic into media irrelevance had next to nothing to do with the controversial scientific debate, but much to do with the procedural logic of the mass media: The news from science was news (an important news factor), but had no consequences for earthly life, because it showed no relation to any social, economic or political problems of action (an equally important news factor). Topics without such references are only able to captivate public interest for a short time - and so it was with ALH 84001.

Today the question of whether there were actually traces of life in this object moves only the small astrobiological community, for the rest of the people the topic has become completely irrelevant. And, according to our prognosis, the situation will be no different if microscopic organisms are found somewhere in the clouds of Venus or under the surface of Mars. An initial fascination with the public will quickly fade in view of the multitude of persistent earthly problems and conflict situations.

Taken together, we have to say that the idea of ​​an overwhelming public interest in the discovery of simple extraterrestrial life forms is a bit far-fetched. Certainly such a find would be a topic in all news media - but only for one or at most a few days. Then, in our opinion, earthly problems will again dominate the public debate. The discovery of life on Mars would be a brief distraction from the ongoing topics on the public agenda - something like the award of a science award or the unexpected wedding of two pop stars.

The key point is that the discovery of interest here would not permanently affect the public agenda. In contrast to Brexit or the corona pandemic, which, in contrast to a bacterial discovery on Mars, have massive medium and long-term effects on the societies affected. An expected media hype about the discovery of extraterrestrial life should only last an extremely short time. The situation would look significantly different if humanity were suddenly confronted with an extraterrestrial intelligence - but that is another topic, the possible consequences of which one of us had extensively investigated elsewhere (Schetsche / Anton: Die Gesellschaft der Extraterirdischen; 2019) .

Problematic legal implications the discovery is unlikely to have either. The existing space law, except for the stationing of weapons in space, is more of a friendly arrangement than a binding treaty with clear limits and freedoms. Presumably, a declaration of intent for the protection and joint peaceful exploration of life forms will be adopted, comparable to the Antarctic Treaty. Due to its lack of economic and political relevance, this agreement is likely to last until a nation or a company strives for the economic use of the raw materials of the heavenly body or the forms of life themselves. Then the cards will be shuffled again internationally. This question is particularly related to advances in unmanned and especially manned spaceflight.

How much is research into alien microbes worth to terrestrial society?

Space Policy: In any case, the interest of state science administrations and space companies is likely to be permanent, because the discovery of such forms of life is likely to lead to a sustained demand from astrobiology for financial resources for further research. And since this is likely to take place far away from Earth or consists of missions to bring extraterrestrial material to Earth from far away, such ventures will be extremely costly. The responsible bodies (state and private) will have to decide again and again how expensive such missions can be and within what time horizon they can be carried out.

At the latest when we talk about exploratory missions carried out by humans, the financial outlay will be exorbitant and at this point, at least in terms of financial policy, will move the public over the long term. The question that arises again and again is: How much is research into microbes on Mars or Venus worth to earthly society?

As with all major space missions in recent decades, there will be ongoing discussions between scientists and policy makers on this issue. And the higher the amount of money requested, the more critical the public will be. A discourse position that considers research into foreign microorganisms to be significantly less relevant than the solution of earthly problems (such as climate change) could quickly dominate the public.

This is particularly related to the fact that it is not clear what contribution the analysis of extraterrestrial microbes could make to solving terrestrial problems. (Even if astrobiology tries to make connections, these connections are too obviously very far-fetched ...) If we start from the general trends in space policy over the last two decades, it could be that the main financial burden of implementation corresponding missions are not shouldered by government agencies, but by private companies. In this case, the public is largely excluded from participating in the relevant decision-making processes and can only be amazed at the goals that one or the other space company has set itself.

It is clear that the discovery of life on Mars, for example, should be a great incentive to start space missions aimed at analyzing alien life forms. The public interest is likely to be fed less from the goal of the corresponding mission (the exploration of extraterrestrial life) than from the fact of manned space missions to one of our neighboring planets. This is where the basic fascination for appropriate Space adventure play the dominant role.

In one sentence: What is of interest is the manned flight to Mars itself, but not one or the other individual scientific goal that the mission serves (as groundbreaking as it may appear to the scientists involved). And the extensive lack of a public debate about the costs of private missions to search for life would push this specific goal into the background in the media perception.


The discovery of extraterrestrial life, anywhere in our solar system, would be the breakthrough for astrobiology. The discovery would make it a leading discipline of the 21st century, because a multitude of questions about the origin of life in general now actually come closer to being answered empirically. Therefore, this discovery would certainly have an impact not only on the neighboring disciplines, but also on the philosophy of science. For scientific disciplines that are more unrelated to biology, however, only indirect effects are to be expected - not their research programs, but their funding might suddenly be in question.

The cultural and social sciences, on the other hand, would not be affected by any of these changes. Outside of science, the consequences would largely be limited to changes in space policy: the location of the discovery would become the natural target of further space missions, more fully automated or, if the discovery took place relatively close to Earth, also more manned. Those manned missions in particular would consume considerable financial resources that would then no longer be available for other research areas. Such more or less daring framing adventures would certainly move the public more than the question of extraterrestrial life itself.

The discovery of microorganisms on foreign celestial bodies would only fascinate the public for a short time, then quickly fade in view of all the earthly problems in terms of its media charisma. For society as a whole, the consequences of the discovery of extraterrestrial life would therefore be limited. And the widespread change of worldview on earth, which has been repeatedly described by scientific circles, would also not happen - because ideologically, alien life in the vastness of space has long been priced in, not least because of the efforts of astrobiology.

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