Most Americans would welcome a microbial E.T.

U.S. volunteers were pretty upbeat about the idea of finding space aliens, study finds

Space rocks, such as asteroids, might transport the first extraterrestrials that reach Earth: tiny microbes.

Zinco79/iStockphoto

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.

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In 1996, a Martian meteorite (top) made headlines when researchers reported it might once have hosted alien microbes (bottom) — a claim that has not found widespread support among scientists.FROM TOP: JSC/NASA; NASA

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. 

Maria Temming is the staff reporter for physical sciences, covering everything from chemistry to computer science and cosmology. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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