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.


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