Nasa calls for new ways to announce discovery of alien life amid fears of misunderstandings

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 27 October 2021 21:02
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Nasa scientists have called for the world to agree on a productive way to announce the potential discovery of alien life on another planet.

Various representatives of the space agency – including its chief scientist, James Green – noted that the interest in any such announcement is likely to be very high.

What’s more, there is the real possibility that life beyond Earth could be discovered relatively soon, they note.

But any announcement might be wrongly understood, with any results being taken to mean more than they might really indicate. Such results are not likely to be a definitive confirmation that alien life does or does not exist, but rather a slow process that could unfold over time.

In that context, it is important that scientists have a rigorously thought-through and clear way of announcing any evidence that might be found. Without that, the public might lose confidence in the scientific process if they are led to believe that alien life has been found only to be told later that the reports were “ambiguous or inaccurate”.

“Our generation could realistically be the one to discover evidence of life beyond Earth. With this privileged potential comes responsibility,” the authors of a new paper, published in the journal Nature, write.

“The magnitude of the question of whether we are alone in the Universe, and the public interest therein, opens the possibility that results may be taken to imply more than the observations support, or than the observers intend.”

To ensure that does not happen, the world should agree on “objective standards” for what would count as evidence for life elsewhere in the universe, as well as “best practices” for how that evidence is communicated.

They suggest that could include a scale to explain any possible evidence, which would begin with the detection of intriguing signals of biological activity at the bottom and run all the way up to detailed observations and confirmation at the top.

That would allow for any possible evidence to be clearly communicated, but without the necessity for an overly simplistic answer of “yes” or “no” to the question of whether life had been found

A similar system has already been developed for the reporting of potential impacts from hazardous asteroids, which the scientists note brings a similarly high level of interest and the danger of being sensationalised. As with the potential scale for alien life, Nasa is yet to use the upper reaches of the scale for asteroids, since impacts from near-Earth objects are very rare.

The scientists also note that the scale is meant only as an example, and that it could be changed in future discussions. The scale could be made more nuanced to account for the different kinds of life that might be found, and environments in which it might be discovered, for instance.

The article, ‘Call for a framework for reporting evidence for life beyond Earth’, is published in Nature today.

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