Dr. Steven J. Dick, Astrobiology Chair at The John W. Kluge Center, testified before the U.S. House Science Committee on December 4 about astrobiology and the search for biosignatures in our solar system.
Dick, the second Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, testified at the full committee hearing alongside Dr. Mary A. Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, Planetary Science Division, NASA, and Dr. Sara Seager, Class of 1941 Professor of Physics and Planetary Science at M.I.T.
Astrobiology is the scientific study of life in the universe. The question of whether humans are alone in the universe—once reserved for philosophers and theologians—can now be addressed by the science of astrobiology. In his testimony, Dr. Dick articulated key discoveries in the field over the past decade, including that Mars once had enough liquid water to be hospitable for life. Dick articulated challenges and goals for astrobiology moving forward, such as researching the origins of life on Earth in order to better determine the origins of life elsewhere.
Dr. Dick also addressed the intersection of astrobiology and society, which is the focus of his research at The John W. Kluge Center. The potential discovery of life on other planets could have enormous consequences for humanity. What will be the effect on our worldviews, philosophies, and religions if we discover microbial or intelligent life beyond Earth? Dr. Dick’s research at the Library of Congress addresses the societal impact of these questions.
Committee members had numerous questions on this intersection of the science of astrobiology and its societal and humanistic implications. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked the panelists how to engage children in astrobiology. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) asked the panelists to consider how astrobiology could encourage students to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education, a sentiment echoed by Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL). Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) concluded the hearing by asking what the implications might be for humanity should other forms of life be discovered—intelligent or microbial.
Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) invited Dr. Dick to testify after reading Dick’s review article, “Critical Issues in History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Astrobiology.” Earlier this year, Rep. Smith met with the inaugural Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, David Grinspoon, for private conversations on the longevity of human civilization and astrobiology’s implications for life on Earth. Rep. Smith introduced Grinspoon’s symposium on the longevity of human civilization hosted by the Kluge Center at the Library of Congress on September 12. These interactions between scholars and policymakers are at the heart of the Kluge Center’s mission to bring leading scholars to Capitol Hill and allow political leaders to tap their wisdom and judgment in order to bring a fresh perspective to government.
Dick is the author of 19 books and numerous articles on the topics of astrobiology, astronomy, and the history of science. A well-known astronomer and historian of science, he previously served as the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the National Air and Space Museum and as the NASA Chief Historian and Director of the NASA History Office. In 2009 the International Astronomical Union designated minor planet 6544 stevendick in his honor.
At the close of his testimony, Dr. Dick quoted the late Baruch S. Blumberg, founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, former member of the Library of Congress Scholars Council, and for whom the Kluge Chair in Astrobiology is named.
Astrobiology embodies ideals of discovery and exploration, Dick said. Quoting Blumberg, Dick said astrobiology “is in the best tradition of our species, and in the best American tradition dating back to Lewis and Clark to ask great questions, to explore our world and other worlds, to infuse our culture with new ideas, and to be changed for the better because of that exploration.”
By Jason Steinhauer, Program Specialist, The John W. Kluge Center