Back in 2007, science writer Lee Billings put together a panel for Seed Media Group on “The Future of the Vision for Space Exploration.” The session took place at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, and I remember flying to Washington with a bad head cold to moderate the event. Miraculously, my cold abated and I enjoyed the company of Louis Friedman (The Planetary Society), Steven Squyres (of Mars rover fame), Edward Belbruno (Princeton University) and interstellar guru Greg Matloff (CUNY). But I particularly remember conversations with Lee. I can’t say I was surprised to see him go on to emerge as one of the most gifted science writers now working.

Not long afterwards, Lee wrote an essay called The Long Shot for SEED Magazine that took him into the thick of the exoplanet hunt, from which this fine paragraph about the nearest stars and why they have such a hold on us:

Alpha Centauri is today what the Moon and Mars were to prior generations—something almost insurmountably far away, but still close enough to beckon the aspirational few who seek to dramatically extend the frontiers of human knowledge and achievement. For centuries, it has been a canonical target of the scientific quest to learn whether life and intelligence exist elsewhere. The history of that search is littered with cautionary tales of dreamers whose optimism blinded them to the humbling, frightful notion of a universe inscrutable, abandoned, and silent.

Image: Alpha Centauri and nearby stars. Notice that Centauri A, B and Proxima Centauri all appear as a single light source. Credit: Akira Fujii/David Malin.

I have to add my own cautionary note, that Billings and I share the view that intelligent life is rare in the galaxy, though I suspect that Lee would be as pleased to be proven wrong as I would. I mention all this because these topics will come up in detail in a book he is now working on called (with a nod to Gabriel García Márquez) Five Billion Years of Solitude, which starts with the search for planets like Earth but moves to a broader view that places our world in a cosmic context. As he did in the SEED essay, Billings spends time with some of the top scientists in the field, discussing the hunt for life elsewhere and explaining why his own optimism for the future of humanity has begun to dim.

Here my views diverge from his, but this excerpt from a recent interview Lee did with Steve Silberman is worth quoting to give a flavor of what’s coming in the book:

I now believe that while life may be widespread in the universe, creatures like us are probably uncommon, and technological societies are vanishingly rare, making the likelihood of contact remote at best. I am less confident than I once was that we will find unequivocal signs of life in other planetary systems within my lifetime. I believe that, when seen in the fullness of planetary time, our modern era will prove to have been the fulcrum about which the future of life turned for, at minimum, our entire solar system. I believe that we humans are probably the most fortunate species to have ever arisen on Earth, and that those of us now alive are profoundly privileged to live in what can objectively be considered a very special time. Finally, I would guess that though we possess the unique capacity to extend life and intelligence beyond Earth into unknown new horizons, there is a better-than-even chance that we will fail to do so.

We’ll have to await the book (it’s due out in 2013) to see how and why these ideas developed, but the interview with Silberman, done on the latter’s NeuroTribes blog, is wide-ranging and gets into the question of what would happen if we did indeed encounter a civilization more advanced than our own. Billings sets up three contact scenarios that are themselves cautionary, in that they remind us of the difficulty in establishing meaningful communication with an alien intelligence. It could be, for example, that differences in our two biospheres would be so profound that communication is all but impossible. Jacob Bronowski made much the same point in The Ascent of Man back in 1974, saying that evolutionary paths would not follow ours on different planets, and that it was conceivable that we wouldn’t recognize alien entities as intelligent or even alive.

So much for the ‘take me to your leader’ trope of early science fiction movies. Another possibility Billings examines is that intelligent aliens might be relatively similar to ourselves because of trends of convergent evolution (here Conway Morris inevitably comes to mind with his 2005 book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe). This can be a troubling scenario as well given that competitive evolution could have produced creatures that, like ourselves, have become expert at conquering, manipulating and exploiting their native biosphere. In this case an alien encounter would not necessarily be benign and we should not assume good intentions.

But even a benevolent superior civilization could stir humanity’s kettle in dangerous ways, and our culture has been less imaginative than it should be in considering the philosophical and moral choices such an encounter could produce. From the interview:

If suddenly an Encyclopedia Galactica was beamed down from the heavens, containing the accumulated knowledge and history of one or more billion-year-old cosmic civilizations, would people still strive to make new scientific discoveries and develop new technologies? Imagine if solutions were suddenly presented to us for all the greatest problems of philosophy, mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology. Imagine if ready-made technologies were suddenly made available that could cure most illnesses, provide practically limitless clean energy, manufacture nearly any consumer good at the press of a button, or rapidly, precisely alter the human body and mind in any way the user saw fit. Imagine not only our world or our solar system but our entire galaxy made suddenly devoid of unknown frontiers. Whatever would become of us in that strange new existence is something I cannot fathom.

No one can fathom the result because it is utterly beyond our experience, leaving us to do what Billings does, which is to talk to the players who are pushing our knowledge forward and, using their insights, gain a perspective we can draw upon in the event of such a contact. Billings set out on a career in neuroscience but made a move into writing and journalism that allows him to range widely through the scientific disciplines in search of just that perspective. He mentions several writers who have been formative (Sagan, Stanislaw Lem), but to me his graceful, lapidary prose owes much to John McPhee. I suspect Five Billion Years of Solitude is going to be Lee’s breakthrough.