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The reaction to an announcement of Martian life October 27, 2010

Posted by Simon in Uncategorized.
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What would the reaction be if everyone agreed that ALH84001 showed signs of Martian life? It’s tempting to think that this would be one of most important discoveries in history, that it would change the way we think about life on Earth and present a crisis for fundamental religion.

But then I read some interesting comments from a 2003 interview with director James Cameron here:

Q: Encounters with extraterrestrial life have been a premise of some of your movies. You have a strong sense of how the public responds to those characterizations, so how do you think they might react to the real thing?

A: I think we already know. Didn’t Bill Clinton announce that the Allen Hills meteorite contained Martian organisms? Don’t we already know the answer to that? People went, “Hey, there’s life on Mars, cool. It’s bacteria.”

Q: So it was no big deal? It didn’t change our societal psyche in terms of our place in the universe?

A: Absolutely not … I hate to say this, because I am so in favor of going to Mars, of going to Europa and finding this out, but I think that to the average person, the response will be a shrug. If (aliens) don’t land on the White House lawn and get out with a death ray, I think the average person is not going to be deeply shocked psychologically. Our expectations have been so elevated from science fiction movies.

But I think if we found intelligent communication, if the SETI Project said, “Yeah, we definitely got an answer,” I think people would react differently to that. I think there’d be fear, there’d be excitement. There’d be all the things that all the science fiction movies have ever shown.

I almost see my duty, if I want to make a film about Mars or Europa, is to get people excited about bacteria. They’re basically not, because they don’t understand the significance. So this is where education and outreach is going to be critical.

There’s no point assuming that if you go win that touchdown, anybody is going to be looking. You know what I mean? You have to get them looking first and then go make the touchdown. If you came in yelling right now, “Hey we found life on Mars,” and if it was microscopic, people are not predisposed to understand the significance. So that’s where the education and the outreach, the filming making, the story telling, the narrative part of it is just as important as the science mission.

I think he makes a great point. Would people get as excited and worked up about a fossil of Martian bacteria as they would about a radio message from ET?

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