Looking for Alien Life at UM

Conference on philosophical issues and implications of extraterrestrials runs online Dec. 14-17

This NASA image depicts a planetary system named TOI 700, about 100 light-years away in our own Milky Way galaxy. It is home to TOI 700 d (illustrated here), the first Earth-size habitable-zone planet discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. The University of Mississippi hosts an online conference Dec. 14-17 exploring the philosophical questions of the potential discovery of alien life-forms in coming decades. Image courtesy of NASA

OXFORD, Miss – Seth Shostak is so confident alien life will be discovered in the next 20 years that the astronomer will buy everyone a cup of coffee if he’s wrong, and NASA shares his confidence. 

Shostak is senior astronomer at SETI Institute, a nonprofit center dedicated to finding alien life. SETI stands for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” He was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at a conference called “Astrobiology: Philosophical Issues and Implications,” that was set for late March 2020 at the University of Mississippi.

Because of COVID-19, that live conference has been rescheduled for Dec. 14-17 as a virtual event.  

“New approaches and new technology suggest that there is good reason to expect that we could uncover evidence even of sophisticated civilizations – the type of aliens we see in the movies and on TV – within a few decades,” Shostak said. “But if we succeed, what would be the societal impact of learning that something, or someone, is out there?” 

The conference includes about 35 presentations by individual experts from more than a dozen countries, representing a wide array of scientific disciplines, said Neil Manson, UM professor of philosophy and a co-organizer of the event.  

“Topics include the questions surrounding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the debate over whether we should attempt to send messages into space in the hope that they will be received by extraterrestrial intelligence, and whether and to what extent we are obliged to protect the planets we explore,” Manson said. “We will also explore the ethical, legal and social implications of off-world settlements and even the very nature of life itself.” 

The conference is the third annual meeting of the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology, or SSoCIA. The newest academic organization dedicated to examining astrobiology and space exploration, SSoCIA began in 2016 with an inaugural conference at Clemson University and conducted its second meeting in 2018 at the University of Nevada at Reno.  

The fourth conference is tentatively planned for 2022 on the Ole Miss campus.  

Neil Manson

“We really wanted the conference to come to Oxford, but the virus forced us to cancel our initial plans,” Manson said. “With wide distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine just around the corner, we hope we can showcase our university in spring 2022.” 

Astrobiology is the study of life beyond Earth and has been an accepted scientific discipline for around 50 years. It is a major research focus at NASA, with collaborators at prestigious universities around the world, including Harvard University, the University of California and the University of Edinburgh. 

Just 25 years ago, no scientific evidence existed of even a single planet outside our solar system, but thousands of exoplanets – planets outside the solar system – have been discovered since. NASA expects to catalog 100 million exoplanets before 2050. 

According to NASA, the chemicals needed for life, such as amino acids and nucleotides, have been found in meteorites, comets and other objects in space. Exoplanets with atmospheres that include water, carbon dioxide and other complex organic compounds also have been found. 

The discovery of so many planets, many of which seem habitable, has led experts to wonder where the extraterrestrial life-forms may be located and how soon they will be discovered. 

UM was selected to host the conference in light of its involvement with astrobiology. The campus is home to the Mississippi NASA Space Grant Consortium and the National Center for Air and Space Law. It is also home to highly regarded programs in related fields such as biology, chemistry and biochemistry, and physics and astronomy. 

“Astrobiology is both the newest and most interdisciplinary scientific discipline, so it is quite literally at the cutting edge of science,” said Kelly Smith, SSoCIA president and conference program chair. Also a philosophy professor and department chair at Clemson University, Smith co-organized the conference with Manson.

“Ole Miss is widely respected for its expertise in both astronomy and space law, so it seemed a very natural choice to host the conference here,” he said.

For more information about SSoCIA, email Smith at kcs@clemson.edu. For more information on the conference, contact Manson at namanson@olemiss.edu