Internet Engagement with Space

Interview with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter
Engaging the Public

ALH 84001, the Allen Hills meteorite; a piece of Mars on Earth. Credit: NASA

Kathleen Connell: I want to just step in here, now. I’m not assuming any objectivity in this discussion. But I can testify to what you’re saying. Astrobiology rediscovered and reinvented exobiology, and, Carl’s and Steven’s and your own and others’ groundbreaking work in this area. And astrobiology put this work forward in an accessible way, by saying things like, "Explore the Living Universe," suggesting that the universe might not be a cold, dead vacuum, but a fecund place. The reaction that I have seen firsthand over the past seven years is that people come to this because it addresses deep and profound questions about who are we, where are we from, and where are we going. People want to get their minds around this with a real fervor.

Ann Druyan: Right.

Kathleen Connell: I’ve seen this in various ways, including actually showing the Mars rock-the Allen Hills meteorite-to children. We had an open house at NASA Ames Research Center, and 220,000 people showed up. The advertising had mentioned that the Mars rock was going to be there. I attribute a lot of the attendance to that talisman from the universe. And yet to the kids, it looked just like any other rock.

Steven Soter: The thing is, it does look like any other rock. Yet we can prove that it’s from Mars. But the profound implication for geology is that there are going to be similar things throughout the universe to what we find here. It’s not necessarily going to look weird and exotic. The same might go for biochemistry, we don’t know. But just as there’s a range of geological types that we understand, we might quite well recognize a lot of other biologies in the universe. The first great discovery of astrophysics in the 19th century was that the visible universe was made of the same chemical elements as we have on the Earth. And that it obeys the same physical laws as we know on the Earth-the same laws of gravity and atomic physics and electromagnetism and so on. There’s a unifying principle that came from astrophysics: the entire visible universe has this commonality. And that may extend to biology as well. But we don’t know. We don’t have the observations for the biology. And therein was the challenge of doing a show in a highly visual medium without being able to show the very thing that we’re talking about, which is life on other worlds.

Kathleen Connell: A lot of people won’t be able to go to New York and see the Hayden Planetarium show. But Ann, I know you’re busy on the Internet, and the Internet is a people’s medium, for now. How do you view that in terms of both communicating and really engaging in a meaningful way in the search for life?

SETI@home uses the idle time of over three million personal computers to sift through radio data for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. Credit: SETI@home

Ann Druyan: Well, actually, SETI@home, I think, is the absolute best example, because here are three-million-plus people, participants in a world Internet community who are accepting from the University of California at Berkeley the data from the Arecibo telescope. As their computer is going about its business it’s analyzing those parcels of data, returning them to Berkeley. Conceivably, if any signal is ever isolated in that noise, you or me or any other participant in SETI@home will be credited with some part of that discovery. That is about as democratic an approach to science, this notion of massive distributed computing, as any. It’s exactly on the theme that is so dear to us, which is the idea of making it possible for all of us to participate in the experience of science. We are in the process of becoming an intercommunicating organism.

Kathleen Connell: Yes. Please tell us more about that.

Ann Druyan: Well, that’s what the Internet is, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it, that it’s antithetical to controlling information, to controlling the public, to limiting the amount of information that the public can have. Any moderately technological group of people can have access to the world’s knowledge, to the latest discoveries from the spacecraft that ply the solar system. Imagine what Jules Verne or H.G. Wells would have made of this. The fact that we are not utilizing it to the fullest possibilities is kind of a sad thing. Pornography is, I think, statistically the greatest use of the Internet. But that doesn’t in any way diminish the fact that there’s a lot of other things we can do to bring ourselves closer to each other, and to break down those primitive walls of xenophobia and nationalism and chauvinism that have divided us recently. It’s a wonderful thing. It means that any person can have access to the kind of information that [at one time] only people who were fortunate enough to have higher education could have access to. It’s a fantastic thing. The consequences of this will probably be no less revolutionary than the development of the printing press. And all of it is in the direction of making this planet more unified and I think in some ways more democratic. So it’s something really great. Another potential usage is that, as we do explore robotically the solar system, it makes it possible for cameras mounted on tiny, roving spacecraft to send back the imagery of these other worlds to all of us. To any one of us fortunate enough to have a computer and be online. Again, this is making science a much less rarefied, elitist experience, and that’s all to the good.