As I’m just finishing up Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder (Pantheon, 2009), the Royal Society had been on my mind even before the two-day conference on SETI that concluded yesterday made the news. If you haven’t read the Holmes book, by all means do so. It’s a fascinating study of the development of science and the imagination in the late 18th Century and into the Romantic era, with cameos by the likes of Shelley and Keats and in-depth discussions of everyone from Pacific voyager Joseph Banks to the chemist Humphry Davy. It’s a cliché to say I couldn’t put the book down, but this one fully deserves the compliment.

With the Royal Society now in its 350th year, a conference steeped in SETI and questions of astrobiology seems made to order as we track the data from our far-flung space observatories. I wanted to mention that Paul Davies’ public lecture at the conference, called “The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe,” will be made available at the Royal Society video archive within a week or so. Davies (Arizona State), a physicist and popular science writer, argued at the conference that we should look here on Earth to see whether life has appeared on our planet more than once. A ‘shadow biosphere,’ one representing forms of life entirely different from our own, might be present in isolated ecological niches.

Addendum: The Davies talk is now available here.

Davies is thinking of places like the dry valleys of Antarctica, or lakes saturated with salt, or volcanic vents. It’s an idea we’ve examined here before, and one you can follow up on in Davies’ article “Are Aliens Among Us?”, which ran in late 2007 in Scientific American Vol. 297, No. 6, pp. 36-43 and is available online. Davies’ book The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, is to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April.

Pondering Davies’ ideas, London’s Times Online notes that a US Geological Survey team led by Felisa Wolfe-Simon is investigating places like Mono Lake in California, where arsenic contamination might support life-forms that use arsenic the same way other life-forms use phosphorus. Not everyone agrees, of course, and the article quotes Colin Pilinger, leader of the Beagle 2 Mars landing attempt, as saying that looking for arsenic-based life is ‘wildly science fiction,’ and ‘you’d be off your trolley’ to look for it.

I wish I could have been at this conference to have heard Pilinger’s own talk, not to mention Alfred Harrison’s. The latter, from the University of California at Davis, took on the huge question of how humans would react to the reception of a signal confirming the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Here’s his response to the Times:

“It is easy to imagine scenarios resulting in widespread psychological disintegration and social chaos. But historical prototypes, reactions to false alarms and survey results suggest that the predominant response to the discovery of a microwave transmission from light years away is likely to be equanimity, perhaps even delight.”

And the Guardian‘s coverage of the conference looks at the parallel some people make with the famous 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast of Orson Welles, which caused some in the radio audience to panic at the thought of an invasion from Mars. Harrison dismisses the idea:

“The public reaction was overstated. Most people who thought the broadcast was real took sensible actions to protect themselves,” Harrison said. “Surveys suggest most people think they will be fine, but they worry about others freaking out.”

I’m not sure which surveys Harrison is referring to, but one that supports him was presented as far back as 1996 at the OSETI II conference in San Jose (CA), where Miguel Sabadell and Fernando Salamero (University of Zaragoza, Spain) demonstrated that there was widespread public interest in extraterrestrial contact. Asked whether contact with ETI would be good for mankind, an overwhelming 79 percent answered Yes, and 77 percent agreed that if we receive a SETI signal, we should answer.

Also supporting Harrison were the results of a 2002 Roper poll that concluded:

“Most Americans appear comfortable with and even excited about the thought of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Three-quarters of the public claim they are at least somewhat psychologically prepared for the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and nearly half are very prepared.”

This story in Nature News looks at Simon Conway Morris’ contribution to the conference. Morris, a paleontologist at Cambridge, points to examples of convergent evolution in Earth’s biological history to make the case for there being a limited number of ways to organize a sensorium or a society. The lives of intelligent aliens could, in other words, be every bit as violent as the lives of beings on Earth. Whatever the case, Martin Dominik (University of St. Andrews, UK) notes that no government has plans for what to do if intelligent life is confirmed elsewhere in the universe. One hope for the conference is that it will persuade policy makers to take the matter into consideration as the numerous imponderables of such contact are examined.