The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: Historical, Philosophical and Scientific
U.S. Naval Observatory
2120th Meeting Abstract
Friday, October 6, 2000 at 8:15 p.m.
Extraterrestrial life has been one of the major themes of 20th century
science, and has roots that go back to ancient Greece. Because the debate has
been at the very limits of science, it is a window on how science has
functioned with little data, attempting to answer a question of profound
importance to humanity's place in the universe. Today the discovery of the
Martian meteorite, life in extreme environments, a likely ocean on Europa, and
some 50 planets beyond our Sun assures that the search will intensify in the
In this lecture, I will provide historical background to the subject, examine
the current debate, assess the likelihood of life beyond Earth, and summarize
the philosophical implications. Whether cosmic evolution ends in planets,
stars and galaxies, or in life, mind and intelligence, will determine the
long-term future of humanity. The very search for a "biological universe"
affects our world view today, just as Copernicanism and Darwinism affected the
short-term and long-term future.
About the Author:
Steven J. Dick has worked as an astronomer and historian of science at the U.S.
Naval Observatory since 1979. He obtained his B.S. in astrophysics (1971), and
MA and PhD (1977) in history and philosophy of science from Indiana University.
Best known as an historian of the extraterrestrial life debate, his doctoral
dissertation was published as
Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from
Democritus to Kant (1982)
. He tackled the
entire scope of the twentieth century debate in
The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate
and the Limits of Science (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
, and its abridgement and update
Life on Other Worlds (1998)
. The latter works argue that the idea of extraterrestrial
life is a world view analagous to the Copernican theory, with widespread
implications. Dick has written on these implications, notably in a volume he
Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological
. Dick has served as Chairman of the Historical
Astronomy Division of the American Astronomical Society (1993-1994), and as
President of the History of Astronomy Commission of the International
Astronomical Union (1997-2000).
He is currently working on a history of the U. S. Naval Observatory.
Find his books at Amazon.com:
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