On Monday 20th January, Nasa announced a sudden press conference on a “discovery beyond our solar system“. Admittedly, Nasa has become a bit notorious for calling press conferences at the drop of a space helmet, but this one has people quite excited.
Included on the panel are Michaël Gillon, who heads the exoplanet detecting project TRAPPIST in Belgium, and at least two experts on exoplanet atmospheres, Nikole Lewis and Sara Seager. Last year TRAPPIST discovered a star called, with all the imagination you’d expect, TRAPPIST-1, orbited by three small planets that it just so happens are perfectly aligned so that we can see them eclipse the central star – and this means that we can watch how the starlight is absorbed by the planet’s atmospheres and calculate what gases they contain.
And the rumours (to repeat, rumours) are that they might have found oxygen which, it’s argued, would be an almost certain sign of life. Oxygen is ridiculously reactive – good news for life, since the reaction between oxygen and sugar is our main source of fuel, but not so good for the metal that tarnishes and wood that burns – and if left on its own, pure oxygen will rapidly disappear as it becomes water, rust, or gases like carbon dioxide. If the atmosphere contains a lot of pure oxygen, something must be putting it there, and that something might be some form of life.
It’s tenuous, I admit. But it’s possible. And it raises an interesting question. What happens if scientists do discover life on other planets? Not intelligent beings, but the sort of life you see in David Attenborough documentaries – things resembling bacteria, plants, animals, or blobs of matter completely alien to our understanding. Surprisingly, it’s not clear.
There’s no plan
In the event that intelligent aliens contact us, the SETI program has a detailed protocol. You start by confirming the signal, then you tell your government, then the UN, then other astronomers, then you contact the International Broadcasting Union to ask them to restrict broadcasts on the alien frequencies*, then you start international consultations on whether to talk back.
But at the moment, there are no real plans for what to do about the comparatively boring (but almost certainly much more likely) case where we find signs of unintelligent life somewhere in deep space. SETI would be unlikely to get involved, and no other body exists that would oversee publication of the data (some scientists, such as Andrew Steele, have suggested changing this). All there is is something called the London Scale – a way for ranking the importance of possible evidence of life out of 10 – but I couldn’t find any evidence that they are any plans for what to do in the event that a piece of evidence scores highly on the London Scale. There isn’t even any agreement about what to do about the risk of infection from bringing extraterrestrial germs to Earth.
Incidentally, even if the press conference does turn out to be an announcement of oxygen on TRAPPIST-1, the highest London score this would get is 2 out of 10 – the London Scale is heavily biased in favour of discoveries inside our own solar system.
Conferences. Lots of conferences. And leaks
Every year, our satellites, probes and observatories pump out terabytes of raw data, and the vast majority of that – paid for by public funds – is freely released. Analysing that data takes hundreds or thousands of people working around the world with a range of different approaches. While sci-fi tells us that any hint of alien life would be immediately covered up by shadowy government figures, in reality this would be an incredibly difficult task. Finding a hint of life in that data is a needle-haystack situation, and it can take a decade to comb through all the data from a mission. By the time anyone spotted the tell-tale sign of life, that data would have been out there for years.
If we even agreed it was life.
Even on the most mundane issues there will always be a contrarian or two who steadfastly stick to the less likely theories. In the event of an extraterrestrial oxygen find, the community would split down the middle. One the one side, papers would pour out attempting to describe the alien lifeform that might be producing this oxygen, while on the other side of the aisle rival teams would search for mechanical explanations like volcanoes or mysterious chemical processes that could explain the data. This debate would be thrashed out at conferences, on arXiv, and ultimately in the pages of Nature and Science.
The only solution would be to look for more data. We can’t send spacecraft to other stars any time soon – TRAPPIST-1 is 40 light years away, and a Pioneer or Voyager type spacecraft would take millennia to get there – but at least we can point more telescopes at it.
There is no way, with all this excitement, that this discovery would stay out of the public eye. Even just the process of moving the telescopes can give the game away – New Scientist was able to work out when LIGO discovered gravitational waves from the public records of the European Southern Observatory. In that case, it took about a week for the news to leak. Similarly, the news of the Higgs boson broke on Twitter days before it was publicly announced.
In all, there’s probably nothing that can that be done to stop the news leaking. The best that could be done would be to announce quickly, using social media (and to be fair, that’s what Nasa’s doing – straight after the presser will be a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session with the scientists) – this article on SETI in the social media age is worth reading.
The president precedent
There have been two previous discoveries that have scored highly on the London Scale: the discovery of what seemed to be fossils in a Martian meteorite (about 4 out of 10) and supposed arsenic-based life forms on Earth (about 7.5 out of 10). The “fossils” remain very controversial and the arsenic-based bacteria now totally discredited, but it’s interesting to see how they were treated at the time.
On August 7, 1996 then-President Bill Clinton spoke at the Nasa press conference announcing the discovery of the Mars fossil. This was a big media event for what was, ultimately, some very small bumps on a rock. The announcement of arsenic-based life on Earth wasn’t quite as big (I couldn’t find any comment on it from Obama) but it still headlined the news.
It seems likely that any announcement of life in space by a NASA would see the involvement of the US president and that means… If extraterrestrial life is discovered, it may be Trump who tells us.
Will we care?
In the public imagination, the discovery of alien life is a Big Deal. An Earth-shattering event (sometimes literally, see above) that reshapes our place in the universe. But, will it really be?
The closest we’ve come to a seeing what a SETI confirmation is probably the War of the Worlds radio show in the 1938. And there were certainly people who worried that the country was under attack by aliens (although it seems the reports of panic are exaggerated), New York certainly didn’t collapse.
And as Seth Shostak points out in The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth, the public loved Percival Lowell’s theory that Mars was inhabited by canal-digging farmers, but there were no riots or great philosophical breakthroughs as a result. Perhaps ultimately, the discovery of distant life outside our solar system won’t be a moment of transcendental glory that changes us forever, but a brief flurry of excitement before we all get back to our own, Earth-bound lives.
* Imagine the chaos if aliens happened to contact us on 2.45 GHz, the frequency of wi-fi, bluetooth, and microwave ovens!