How will humankind react to the discovery of life off Earth?

Through this pilot, we are given the opportunity to explore the many aspects of the human reaction to alien life. We study topics from how different cultures might react to the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial or intelligent life, to figuring out how to communicate with aliens. Pilot 5 plans to make a series of documents that will help humanity prepare for our seemingly inevitable contact with the extraterrestrial.

While both scientists and the public at large have prepared for encountering extraterrestrial life through preparing to encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, it seems much more likely that humanity will directly encounter alien life first through some form more akin to microorganisms. This in turn raises the likelihood that extraterrestrial life will not announce itself but rather will be announced — through a cloud of science and policy actions that are already acknowledged to be shifting and fraught with challenges. We will use historical analogues and through a set of articles, public events, and videos, we will set the stage for planning discussions with NASA and other governmental and private organizations.

Key Accomplishments

  • First paper published in II showing that humans react generally positively to the idea of microbial life.
  • Introduced a new course that is taking an interdisciplinary approach to examining the question "How will humankind react when life is found off of the earth?" - BIS 402: Life Beyond Earth.
  • Held a press at a briefing at the AAAS annual meeting in Austin, Texas to discuss research results on how humans might react to life discovered off Earth.


Lindy Elkins-TantonPilot and Initiative Leader, Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration

Daniel SarewitzProfessor of Science and Society, School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Micahel VarnumPrincipal Investigator of Culture and Ecology Lab, Department of Psychology

David GustonFounding Director, School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Jessica HirshornLecturer, Interdisciplinary Studies and Organizational Leadership

Jung Yul KwonGraduate Student, Culture and Ecology Lab

Hannah BercoviciGraduate Student, School of Earth and Space Exploration

Elizabeth GarbeeGraduate Student, Center for Science and the Imagination

Amanda ArnoldGraduate Student, Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology