by Jay Cole
This CNN.com headline from 30 September 2019 grabbed my attention: “When—or if—NASA finds life on Mars, the world may not be ready for the discovery, the agency chief says.”
In an interview with The Telegraph newspaper, Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Chief Scientist, said that if NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 Rover mission finds evidence of life, “[I]t will start a whole new line of thinking. I don’t think we’re prepared for the results. We’re not.”
Dr. Green’s comments made me think of some of the questions I write about in my short story, “Solve for X,” [on sale now] in the November/December issue of Analog: Are humans ready for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence? What if one person had the capacity and inclination to prevent such evidence from being shared with the rest of humanity? What technological conditions and psychological considerations might motivate that person?
It is important to distinguish between life and intelligent life. The Mars 2020 Rover may find evidence of basic living organisms deep within the Martian crust and that would be significant. Detecting radio signals that demonstrate advanced extraterrestrial intelligence would be transformative. We can expect humanity’s reaction to one would be very different than its reaction to the other.
How can/does science fiction influence public attitudes about a whole range of topics, from artificial intelligence and climate change to genetic engineering and stem cell research? I think this is an area ripe for research—and there are others who feel similarly.
Without spoiling my own story, I will say that Dr. Green’s assessment of humanity’s readiness for evidence of extraterrestrial life is compelling food for thought. This is not merely a hypothetical parlor game—there is a sense of urgency around these questions. Today might be the day we detect signals of extraterrestrial intelligence using radio telescopes. Or we could discover evidence of life during the Mars Rover mission in a couple of years. Perhaps we won’t find any evidence in the near future, but if we make the necessary innovations and investments (such as building a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon, as my story contemplates) we could increase the likelihood of finding that radio signal “needle in the celestial haystack” in the decades to come. Whether it happens tomorrow or in twenty years, thinking about the societal implications of finding evidence that we are not alone in the Universe is well worth the effort.
It is also important to think about what would happen if we don’t find any evidence. The absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but if we continue to search and find nothing, especially if searching becomes more technically sophisticated and powerful (and expensive), that will also have implications.
Whether we find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, or nothing, any of these outcomes will have substantial—possibly profound—effects on human society. Thinking about and preparing for these effects are legitimate areas of inquiry for anthropology, philosophy, psychology, religion, and sociology. Of course, it is also an area of inquiry that science fiction has been exploring for about a century.
Which brings me back to Dr. Green’s quote about the prospect of finding life of Mars: “It will start a whole new line of thinking. I don’t think we’re prepared for the results. We’re not.” What role should science fiction play in helping us to prepare for the results? This question begs an even larger question: How can/does science fiction influence public attitudes about a whole range of topics, from artificial intelligence and climate change to genetic engineering and stem cell research? I think this is an area ripe for research—and there are others who feel similarly.
Kevin L. Young and Charli Carpenter recently co-authored a fascinating article entitled, “Does Science Fiction Affect Political Fact? Yes and No: A Survey Experiment on Killer Robots.”* In their literature review, Young and Carpenter provide examples of how science fiction has shaped political discourse: the use of “Star Wars” by supporters and opponents to describe Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative; activists harkening back to Mary Shelley and her pioneering novel to label genetically-modified food as “Frankenfood”; and drawing on Game of Thrones to make the case for action on climate change.
These vivid examples suggest just how large and rich this field is for further inquiry. Given my own interests in radio astronomy, I have begun examining how science fiction, particularly the metaphors they use, may have influenced or informed public opinion and political attitudes about radio astronomy and its role in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
In their 1968 novel, The Cassiopeia Affair, Chloe Zerwick and Harrison Brown were among the first science fiction authors to write about radio telescopes metaphorically. Using a somewhat menacing metaphor, Zerwick and Brown write, “. . . the two radio telescopes spread their steel fretworks toward the heavens like hulking thirty-six thousand-ton spiderwebs on legs, ready to catch their celestial prey.”
In his 1972 novel, The Listeners, James Gunn describes the radio telescopes at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico with a series of friendlier metaphors: “Between MacDonald and the sky was a giant dish held aloft by skeleton metal fingers—held high as if to catch the stardust that drifted down at night from the Milky Way,” and “. . . listening ear cupped by the surrounding hills to overhear the whispering universe,” and a “. . . stethoscope with which they took the pulse of the all and noted the birth and death of stars.”
Carl Sagan uses a botanical metaphor to describe the radio telescopes that make up the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico in his 1985 novel, Contact. For protagonist Ellie Arroway, the radio telescopes “stretched for tens of kilometers across the New Mexico scrub desert like some strange species of mechanical flower straining toward the sky.”
The Chinese science fiction author Cixin Liu also relies on multiple metaphors to describe radio telescopes in his 2006 novel, The Three Body Problem. For Liu, these instruments are “. . . an enormous hand stretched open toward the sky, possessing an ethereal strength.” They are also “. . . a line of twenty-eight parabolic antenna dishes, each with a diameter of nine meters, like a row of spectacular steel plants.” And he writes, “. . . the antennas now formed a simple two-dimensional picture against the night sky like a series of abstract symbols.”
Spiderwebs to catch celestial prey . . . a giant dish to catch stardust . . . a stethoscope . . . a mechanical flower . . . steel plants . . . an open hand . . . abstract symbols silhouetted against the twilight sky. Compelling, powerful metaphors. Metaphors that describe, explain, and help us to look at radio telescopes in a different way. These metaphors from science fiction have certainly helped me to look at radio telescopes differently and to understand better their purpose and their potential. Perhaps these metaphors have exerted influence over other readers. I look forward to finding out.
In addition to exploring the effects of science fiction on public opinion, I also write science fiction. One of the reasons I enjoyed writing “Solve for X” is because it allowed these two worlds of mine to collide—in a good way. I hope my story makes a small contribution to the larger effort of preparing for the societal impacts of finding, or not finding, evidence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence. And if it does, I’ll be right there to study how and why.
The CNN article is available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/30/us/nasa-life-on-mars-jim-green-scn-trnd/index.html.
* Young, Kevin L., and Charli Carpenter. (2018) Does Science Fiction Affect Political Fact? Yes and No: A Survey Experiment on “Killer Robots.” International Studies Quarterly, doi: 10.1093/isq/sqy028.