AUSTIN, Texas — Earthlings may offer a warm welcome to microbes from space.
That was the conclusion of scientists at a news conference on February 16. They had asked Americans how they would react to a finding of extraterrestrial life. And generally, they found, people had said they would respond positively. The researchers shared their findings, here, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The researchers had not suggested an alien humanoid might turn up. They asked people instead about how they would feel about microbes from space.
The responses suggest that if microbes are found on Mars, Saturn’s moon Enceladus or elsewhere, “we’ll take the news rather well,” said Michael Varnum. He is a social psychologist on the project. He works at Arizona State University in Tempe. What’s more, he added, the tone of news reports on potential evidence for intelligent aliens suggests people would welcome that news, too.
Varnum was part of a team that surveyed some 500 online volunteers, all in the United States. Each was asked to describe how they would react to learning scientists had just turned up germ-size E.T.’s. Varnum’s team analyzed each response using a computer program. It looked for words indicating positive feelings (such as “nice”) and negative ones (such as “worried”). The program also scanned for reward- and risk-focused words, such as “benefit” or “danger.”
People generally used more positive and reward-oriented words than negative and risk-oriented ones to describe their expected reactions. The same held true when they were asked how they expected everyone else to take such news.
In a second study, Varnum’s team asked about 500 U.S.-based volunteers to read one of two newspaper stories. One from 1996 reported evidence of fossilized microbes in a Martian meteorite. The second, from 2010, said researchers had created a synthetic bacterial cell in the lab.
Both groups responded favorably to what they had read. Those who had read about Martian microbes, though, had shown a more positive reaction. This suggests that people are particularly keen on finding aliens, Varnum says.
He cautions, however, that “any finding that comes from one population — like Americans — you have to take with a grain of salt.” His group now hopes to gather responses from people elsewhere across the globe.
But are they intelligent?
For many years, scientists have participated in a program known as SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Douglas Vakoch is one of them. He heads a group in San Francisco known as Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Vakoch suggests that researchers should gauge how people might react to a range of instances in which some alien microbe might turn up.
The Martian meteorite noted in the 1996 article, for instance, “has been on Earth for a long time,” notes Vakoch. To date, nothing bad has happened. As such, he says, “That’s a really safe scenario.” But he wonders whether people would be as gung-ho about finding live microbes on other planets or meteorites?
And what if the aliens were intelligent? “If you find intelligent life elsewhere, [you] know that you’re not the only kid on the block,” says Seth Shostak. He’s an astronomer at the SETI Institute. It’s located in Mountain View, Calif. Knowing that human intelligence isn’t unique might provoke a much different response than merely finding the outer space equivalent of “pond scum,” he says.
Last December, Science News reported that scientists with the Breakthrough Listen project used a radio telescope to look at ‘Oumuamua — a nearby asteroid. Why? They were searching signs of intelligence — meaning aliens. There was the off chance, they noted, that what appeared to be an asteroid might actually be an interstellar spacecraft. The result? “Sorry, X-Files fans.” Notes Science News, “So far no such signals have been detected.”
To get a sense for how people would feel about finding intelligent aliens, Varnum analyzed other such reports about ‘Oumuamua as a vehicle for life. Like Science News, those news reports had been largely positive. Concludes Varnum: It appears the broader public, too, might take kindly to the discovery of little green men.
alien A non-native organism. (in astronomy) Life on or from a distant world.
American Association for the Advancement of Science Formed in 1848, it was the first permanent organization formed to promote the development of science and engineering at the national level and to represent the interests of all its disciplines. It is now the world’s largest such society. Despite its name, membership in it is open to anyone who believes “that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can help solve many of the challenges the world faces today.” Its members live in 91 nations. Based in Washington, D.C., it publishes a host of peer-reviewed journals — most notably Science.
annual Adjective for something that happens every year.
asteroid A rocky object in orbit around the sun. Most asteroids orbit in a region that falls between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers refer to this region as the asteroid belt.
astronomy The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.
bacterial Having to do with bacteria, single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside animals.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.
computer program A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.
E.T. (n.) An abbreviation made famous by the 1982 Universal Pictures movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The main character was a charming space alien called E.T. His most famous line from the movie was “E.T. phone home.” E.T. has since come to be used as a colloquial term for any intelligent and potentially friendly space alien.
Enceladus The sixth largest of Saturn’s more than 50 moons. Enceladus is bright white and covered with a thick shell of ice. Deep beneath that ice sits what appears to be a global ocean of salty liquid water. Enceladus is a round sphere, 500 kilometers (310 miles) across. It is a little less than one-third the width of Earth's moon.
extraterrestrial (ET) Anything of or from regions beyond Earth.
gauge A device to measure the size or volume of something. For instance, tide gauges track the ever-changing height of coastal water levels throughout the day. Or any system or event that can be used to estimate the size or magnitude of something else. (v. to gauge) The act of measuring or estimating the size of something.
germ Any one-celled microorganism, such as a bacterium or fungal species, or a virus particle. Some germs cause disease. Others can promote the health of more complex organisms, including birds and mammals. The health effects of most germs, however, remain unknown.
intelligence The ability to collect and apply knowledge and skills.
interstellar Between stars.
Mars The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.
meteorite A lump of rock or metal from space that passes through Earth’s atmosphere and collides with the ground.
microbe Short for microorganism. A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.
planet A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, the object must be big enough to have pulled neighboring objects into the planet itself or to have slung them around the planet and off into outer space.
psychologist A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors.
radio To send and receive radio waves, or the device that receives these transmissions.
range The full extent or distribution of something. For instance, a plant or animal’s range is the area over which it naturally exists. (in math or for measurements) The extent to which variation in values is possible. Also, the distance within which something can be reached or perceived.
reward (In animal behavior) A stimulus, such as a tasty food pellet, that is offered to an animal or person to get them to change their behavior or to learn a task.
risk The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)
Saturn The sixth planet out from the sun in our solar system. One of the four gas giants, this planet takes 10.7 hours to rotate (completing a day) and 29 Earth years to complete one orbit of the sun. It has at least 53 known moons and 9 more candidates awaiting confirmation. But what most distinguishes this planet is the broad and flat plane of seven rings that orbit it.
scenario A possible (or likely) sequence of events and how they might play out.
SETI An abbreviation for search for extraterrestrial intelligence, meaning life on other worlds.
social (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.
synthetic An adjective that describes something that did not arise naturally, but was instead created by people. Many synthetic materials have been developed to stand in for natural materials, such as synthetic rubber, synthetic diamond or a synthetic hormone. Some may even have a chemical makeup and structure identical to the original.
telescope Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.
tone Changes in a voice that express a particular feeling or mood.
unique Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.
Meeting: M. Varnum. What happens when everyone finds out? American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, Austin, Texas, February 17, 2018.
Meeting: M. Varnum. Humans rethink aliens, look to future in space. American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, Austin, Texas, February 16, 2018.
Journal: J.Y. Kwon et al. How will we react to the discovery of extraterrestrial life? Frontiers in Psychology. Published online January 10, 2018. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02308.