- How are ideas that had once been considered speculative best adopted into the practice of serious scientific investigation?
- How are speculative ideas most effectively graduated from the realm of science fiction and introduced into scientific discourse?
- By what benchmarks of conceptual “distance” are speculative concepts evaluated before being considered too fringe for serious consideration?
A Greek altar to Zeus. (Uncredited)
These are questions with which I find myself (quite unexpectedly, and perhaps, naively,) faced after the publication of my latest article, “A Call for Proactive Xenoarchaeological Guidelines: Scientific, International Policy, and Socio-Political Considerations” in the journal Space Policy.
In it, I discuss the practical realities and considerations necessary to conduct a rigorous investigation of a suspected “alien” artifact – whether conducted on Mars, in orbit, on a returned sample, or around another star.
My logic in writing such an article was straightforward and fairly simple. With an ever-expanding suite of (primarily robotic) extraterrestrial exploration activities, I argued that it is only a matter of time until we stumble across something we think might be evidence of astrobiological activity (alien life).
Whether or not the suspected site or artifact turns out to be anything special is irrelevant. The moment we have the suspicion that an item may be of interest is the very instant a preconceived xenoarchaeological methodology becomes useful. Therefore, we should start thinking about things like xenoarchaeological methodologies ahead of time.
A terrestrial archaeological dig site. (Credit: Lorna Richardson)
After a literature search, it became clear to me that the “scientific endeavor,” (if one could reasonably call it a single thing,) had not yet adequately considered the practical, logistical, and scientific considerations such an investigation would require. (To the point: when are planetary geologists taught to consider site context from an artifact forensics perspective? Conversely, when are archaeologists taught to consider different gravity, temperature, pressure, etc., environments in their analyses?)
So, I assembled a general outline based on SETI protocols, COSPAR sample return guidelines, and basic archaeological principles, and I laid it bare upon the altar of science (read: peer review). I truly believed that it was time to elevate what once existed only in the province of Arthur C. Clarke and Jack McDevitt to serious consideration.
The Apollo 17 field site. (Credit: NASA)
Now, the journal Space Policy is an interdisciplinary journal, which is the level of consideration I was after. While my first thought was to submit to the journal Astrobiology, the people interested in space exploration concepts at the 40,000-foot-level are the ones I sought to engage rather than the scientists currently entrenched in their own niche work. I wanted to stimulate the big-picture types to start thinking about what we can and should do in the event of a potential “artifact” discovery by a rover, etc., and to perhaps encourage others to engage and develop these concepts further.
While I received many positive responses and enough constructive feedback to consider the article fruitful, (much of it from astronomers and archaeologists,) not everyone viewed my contribution so favorably. Chief amongst the opposition turned out to be Dr. Linda Billings, a communications researcher at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. (You can find her blog here). As it would turn out, she has a longstanding relationship with NASA and has spent decades helping to craft their science message. Recently, she has been working to promote astrobiology to the public… and she didn’t like my article one bit.
Mars rover at Victoria Crater, Mars, as seen from orbit. (Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL, NASA)
Like a fervent acolyte leaping to the defense of her faith, she plunged an emotionally-charged response straight into the fray. Clearly, my proposition stepped on some of her conceptual toes.
However, I would argue that when one weighs the immense “deep time” available to exoplanetary systems, the current pursuits of astrobiology and SETI, (which emphasize microbiology and technologically-advanced extraterrestrial life respectively,) leave a gaping conceptual whole where our first physical investigations are actually likely to exist: An in-situ study of the remains and/or artifacts of extinct alien life.
How would we conduct a rigorous investigation of such artifacts? What are the pitfalls and likely biases intrinsic to such work? These are the sorts of questions I sought to spark.
Based on Linda’s failure to address my article’s technical propositions, and considering the fact that she spent the great majority of her time either misstating (or apparently misunderstanding) the article, it seemed almost as though she didn’t really read it. Instead, it was as though Linda was responding to something I represented to her – perhaps a UFO-hunter seeking to justify sending spacecraft to the “face on Mars” … (which is, after all, just a mesa.) She preaches semantics at length, (which I argue are inadequate,) and she spends a great deal of time deconstructing arguments my article never made - contradicting herself in the process. In all, I was quite taken aback, and I was frankly fascinated by the response. I don’t mind critical feedback, but I would like it to be constructive.
I’m curious if anyone else agrees – she seems to be responding to more than just my article.
As I said earlier, Linda’s response seemed very emotionally-charged to me, and the editor was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to run a counter-response. (Despite the fact that I was limited by a extremely-confining word count, I was able to address most of her inconsistencies and misstatements in my rejoinder, which ran in the same issue.)
Otherwise, the direct feedback in some circles was positive enough that collaboration has resulted, (in the true spirit of scientific exploration,) and I have a couple of follow-on papers in the works. In my mind, that’s what this is all about.
In any event, the questions I leave to you are these:
- When is it too early to begin discussing concepts scientifically?
- Are we to wait until a discovery and then rush to try and think clearly through the thick of it all?
- Can and should science be proactive?
We have spacecraft flying all over the place these days. Personally, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to plan a couple of chess moves ahead.
Who knows? The effort may just even come in handy.