Letters of Intent received in 2022

LoI 2024-2161
The Societal Impact from the Discovery of Life Beyond Earth

Date: 6 August 2024 to 9 August 2024
Category: Non-GA Symposium
Location: Cape Town, South Africa
Contact: Hermine Landt (hermine.landt@durham.ac.uk)
Coordinating division: Division B Facilities, Technologies and Data Science
Other divisions:
Co-Chairs of SOC: Hermine Landt (Durham University)
Richard Wilman (Durham University)
Martin Dominik (University of St. Andrews)
Margaret Race (SETI Institute)
Chair of LOC: None (None)



Astronomy topics: All-sky surveys; Technosignatures; Astrobiology; Machine Learning; LSST; SKA; Extraterrestrial Life;

Other topics will be relevant to the different disciplines involved.



“Where is everybody?” asked physicist Enrico Fermi when he alluded to the conflict between the high probability for life to be common in the Universe and the apparent lack of its existence beyond Earth, now known as the Fermi Paradox. The phylogenetic Tree of Life connects 2.3 million life species known on Earth. It is difficult to fathom that none of these species or other would have had a chance to develop elsewhere in the Universe, ultimately leading to intelligent species like ours with the capability to develop technology that can be detected from Earth with current instruments.

But this decade will see a once-in-a- lifetime financial investment by the international astronomical community, governments and philanthropists in the search for life beyond Earth, looking for both biosignatures in exoplanet atmospheres as well as technosignatures in large transient sky surveys such as those conducted with the upcoming LSST and SKA facilities. Inspired by the Apollo mission program of NASA in the 1960's, which showed that if sufficient financial investment is made available, it can lead to breakthroughs in space exploration (culminating in the Moon landing), today's research communities, governments and philanthropists have increased resources for the search for extraterrestrial life in all its forms. Therefore, we expect that this decade will bring the answer to one of humanity's biggest questions since time immemorial: "Are we alone in the Universe?" Perhaps no scientific discovery will have a greater impact on society, but as a society we are surprisingly ill-prepared for it; the few, rudimentary protocols that are in place are designed by and for Western societies and pre-date the social media era. The main challenge will lie not only in the verification of potential claims, a process expected to follow the standards of evidence which might not be accepted by all, but in the communication of such a major result to 'planet Earth', which is far from being a homogeneous entity.

We propose a multidisciplinary meeting during the IAU General Assembly 2024 to bring together expertise from astronomy, mathematics, biology, anthropology, philosophy, theology and law to discuss a framework for the most suitable communication of a detection or a non-detection of extraterrestrial life taking account of the standards of evidence in a socio-cultural context. The impact on society in the age of social media and internet will be addressed. This meeting will start a meaningful scholarly debate on the societal impact from the discovery of Life Beyond Earth (as a biosignature, technosignature or both), considering also the implications of a non-discovery for our potential cosmic fate. At the meeting end we hope to have a set of guidelines that serve to increase preparedness of the relevant scientific communities, government and policy makers during this decade. Besides working with scholars who come from widely different disciplines and are active in the interface between space studies and society, we will also seek to engage with public opinion.