On the night before Halloween in 1938, a strange story crackled over radios across the United States. An announcer interrupted the evening’s regular programming for a “special bulletin,” which went on to describe an alien invasion in a field in New Jersey, complete with panicked eyewitness accounts and sounds of gunfire. The story was, of course, fake, a dramatization of The War of The Worlds, the science-fiction novel published by H. G. Wells in 1898. But not all listeners knew that. The intro to the segment was quite vague, and those who tuned in a few minutes into the show found no suggestion that what they were hearing wasn’t true.
The exact nature of the reaction of these unlucky listeners has been debated in the decades since the broadcast. Some say thousands of people dashed out of their homes and into the streets in terror, convinced the country was under attack by Martians. Others say there was no such mass panic. Regardless of the actual scale of the reaction, the event helped cement an understanding that would later be perpetuated in science-fiction television shows and films: Humans, if and when they encounter aliens, probably aren’t going to react well.
But what if the extraterrestrial life we confronted wasn’t nightmarish and intelligent, as it’s commonly depicted, but rather microscopic and clueless? Perhaps clusters of tiny organisms not unlike the earliest life-forms of Earth, long before they evolved to make Hollywood movies about little green men. How would we react then?
This is the question Michael Varnum wants to answer. Varnum is a psychology professor at Arizona State University and a member of the school’s Interplanetary Initiative, a space-exploration research project. Microscopic organisms don’t make for good alien villains, but our chances of discovering extraterrestrial microbial life seem better than encountering advanced alien civilizations, Varnum says. In recent years, more and more scientists have begun to suspect that microbes may exist on moons in our solar system, in the subsurface oceans of Europa and Enceladus and the methane lakes of Titan.
“There’s a bit of a giggle factor to this,” Varnum says of his work.“But I’m actually getting a sense that there’s less of a giggle factor than maybe a decade or two ago.”
Varnum and his colleagues at ASU recently conducted several experiments to try to gauge how people would react to news of microbial life elsewhere in the universe. The results, they concluded, suggest people might actually take it pretty well.
In multiple studies, Varnum and his team ran different kinds of text through software that detects and analyzes positive and negative affect in language. One batch included media reports about space-related news: the discovery of mysterious cosmic objects called pulsars in 1967, the detection of the unexplained “Wow!” radio signal in 1977, a Martian meteorite reported to have fossilized microbes in 1996, and the strange flickering of a distant star, first revealed in 2015, that sparked speculation about alien megastructures.
Another batch included essays written by U.S.-based participants that described how they would react to news of the discovery of extraterrestrial microbial life, and how they thought the rest of the world would react. Another batch included written responses to either a New York Times article about the Martian meteorite or a Times article about synthetic life being created in a laboratory. Yet another set included news coverage about a more recent event, last year’s discovery of ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object in our solar system.
In every case, the text-analysis software showed that people, journalists and non-journalists alike, seemed to exhibit more positive than negative emotions in response to news of extraterrestrial microbes.
People felt more positively about microbial life outside of Earth than they did about human-made life generated in the lab. The researchers didn’t find any variation in responses based on the personality traits, political beliefs, income, and other demographic factors they asked participants to report. (Varnum and his team also found that people felt their fellow Americans would be less happy about the news than they would—a product of the tendency among Americans to think they’re better than the average person, he says.) Varnum recently presented these findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The results seem to suggest that as long as aliens aren’t dropping out of the sky into our cities, people may be okay knowing something else is out there. Even though there was some speculation that ‘Oumuamua was an alien spaceship—potentially scary!—Varnum’s analysis showed the news reaction still leaned positive, perhaps because the object was moving away from Earth and posed no threat to the planet. “If there were a lot of spaceships and they had weapons and they were coming to Earth, I’m guessing the reaction would be very different,” Varnum says.
Varnum’s findings are welcome news to some astronomers who study exoplanets and astrobiology, including René Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. Heller conducted an online experiment last year that asked people to decode a fake alien transmission and garnered 300 responses. “I was naturally delighted to see that the experimental subjects tended to associate the discovery of extraterrestrial life with positive emotions,” Heller said in an email. “This is good to see because an equally plausible outcome would have been for people to associate this kind of news with fear, e.g., of being conquered or being erased as a civilization in its entirety.”
Heller pointed out that Varnum’s studies have some limitations, which Varnum says he recognizes. Research has shown people tend to use more positive than negative language in their communication. The 500 people who wrote about their hypothetical reactions were paid to do it through the Amazon’s crowdsourcing website Mechanical Turk, which links researchers to people willing to participate in surveys and other information-gathering experiments. And since the participants were based in the United States, the researchers’ findings can’t easily be extrapolated to other populations. Varnum says his team is planning follow-up studies to investigate potential reactions in other cultures, particularly non-Western populations.
In general, media mentions and their predictive abilities are imperfect measures. Text-analysis software itself has some gaps; the program can’t, for example, detect sarcasm.
Varnum’s research tackled the question of how, but it leaves unanswered the why. Why would we take this kind of news well? Maybe, Varnum offers, it would make the universe seem like a more welcoming place. “Learning that life wasn’t just an accident that happened on this one rock and is clinging on tenuously, at least for me, when I think about that, it gives me a sense of comfort,” he says. “Maybe the universe isn’t empty and cold.”
But what about those for whom the idea of life outside of Earth flies in the face of their beliefs? Varnum’s studies did not ask participants to report their views on religion.
“A lot of worldviews, both religious and secular, have shown themselves to be pretty flexible,” Varnum says. “The Catholic Church eventually made peace with a heliocentric solar system, right?”