In the search for life beyond our planet, astrophysicists and astronomers are usually the starring characters. Through SETI, they are listening for transmissions from aliens, and through telescopes like Kepler and research in arid regions of Earth they are studying what it might take for life to arise elsewhere. But those scientists are themselves being studied: by anthropologists. Wired has a thoughtful interview with Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist who specializes in understanding how people think about space exploration and alien life. Here’s one choice tidbit, in which she describes what she thinks of one common story of first contact: a signal from intelligent life electrifies humanity, which subsequently settles its differences and unites under a common banner.
Denning: One way to read that, in the most general sense, is that it’s a narrative that makes us feel better.
One of the things that astronomy and space exploration in the 20th century has done is force us to confront the universe in a way that we never did before. We had to start understanding that, yeah, asteroids impact the earth and can wipe out a vast proportion of life, and our planet is a fragile spaceship Earth. I think this has given us this sort of kind of cosmic anxiety. And it would make us feel a whole lot better if we had neighbors and they were friendly and they could enlighten us.
One of the things that runs through the whole SETI discussion is our problems with technology. There is an inherent assumption that the equipment needed for communication across interstellar space would necessarily evolve in tandem with weapons of mass destruction. Therefore any society that survived long enough to make contact with us would have solved their technological problems. I think that’s a very hopeful take on it. These stories of contact and what it would do for us, they’ve emerged in concert with these anxieties about the universe and questions about our technology. I think in some way it’s almost like a coping mechanism.
Read more at Wired.
Image courtesy of Velo Steve / flickr