NASA’s chief scientist recently announced what those in astrobiology have known for some time: “I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” If she is right, we are on the brink of one of the most important discoveries in human history. Should this come to pass, we will immediately confront a series of extremely complex challenges that cannot be resolved without strong input from disciplines other than the sciences. NASA’s vision for astrobiology, as well as nascent European efforts, are far ranging and include broad questions about the future of life in the universe. Yet these issues have received much less attention than the hard science. SoCIA 2016 is designed to help correct this deficit, starting a wider conversation on these matters, and perhaps even sowing the seeds for a new academic society. Some of the questions in need of further exploration include:
Q: What is life?
Q: What are our ethical obligations to extraterrestrial life? To non-living features of the extraterrestrial environment?
Q: Should humans seek to exploit and/or colonize space? If so, how should this be done?
Q: Are there truly universal principles of biology, psychology, morality, etc. that would apply to extraterrestrial life?
Q: What impact will the discovery of extraterrestrial life have on human society? On religion?
Q: What is the status of astrobiology: a science, a proto-science, a speculative enterprise, or what?
Q: Should we be actively searching for extraterrestrial life? Messaging potential alien homeworlds?
SoCIA 2016 is organized as an off-year workshop of the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB or just “ISH”), which gathers scholars from diverse disciplines to explore a variety of conceptual issues within biology generally. The goal of these workshops is to bring together a small group (about 25) of younger scholars (especially graduate students) and senior researchers in an atmosphere of informal exchange. Graduate students who are members of ISH and accepted to the workshop can apply for travel support. Combined with the group accommodation option, this should make attending the workshop free (or nearly so) for graduate students.
The workshop will be organized around two guiding principles. First, it is not a disciplinary conference, but a topical one. Researchers from any discipline are welcome, as long as they bring their unique perspective to bear on the broader issues beyond hard science. Second, we aim to establish an informal and fun atmosphere of shared inquiry. All attendees will listen to each presentation and there will be many opportunities for discussions over beer, music, s’mores, etc.