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The Detection of Extraterrestrial Life: Are We Ready?

Part of the Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics book series (ASTROBIO)


This chapter offers a sociocultural perspective on the scientific search for life beyond Earth. It sheds light on the ways in which alien life is imagined and theorized in order to assess the possible societal response to the detection of other life. This chapter is based on the findings of research conducted over two years in the UK, which conceptualizes the extraterrestrial life hypothesis as a significant part of the general worldview, constantly shaped by the work and discoveries of science. Based on these data, the chapter offers insights into the current Western concepts of other life as understood, perceived, and interpreted by the scientific community and popular culture. The post-detection scenarios currently discussed deal mostly with a profound cultural shock following discovery of a superior extraterrestrial civilization. In contrast, the most recent scientific quest for other life now operates with a distinctly different concept of extraterrestrial life that ushers in other possible reactions to a detection or a contact. To establish current concepts of other life then seems to be crucial for predicting the societal response to a first contact. The chapter presents an overview of multiple conceptions of other life in science and science fiction to outline the potential variety of responses. The aim of this chapter is to suggest that the societal readiness and overall acceptance of the other life hypothesis needs to be taken into account and that the actual response to the discovery of other life will be determined by the actual form or type of life detected. This chapter will present examples from science fiction and other ethnographic material collected during fieldwork to demonstrate how popular culture has adapted the other life idea and how the presupposed other life is perceived.


  • Popular Culture
  • Science Fiction
  • Societal Response
  • Star Trek
  • Advanced Civilization

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-35983-5_14
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  1. 1.

    This chapter is based on data gathered from multiple sources during ethnographic research project In Search of the Inhabited Universe, conducted through the Department of Anthropology, Durham University.

  2. 2.

    Valid as of April 28, 2012. In the case of the phrase “aliens” the high volume of searches may be elevated following the release of the Alien vs Predator film and personal computer game.


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Correspondence to Klara Anna Capova .

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Appendix I. List of Films

Appendix I. List of Films

Avatar. Directed by James Cameron. USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2009.

Contact. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1997.

Cloverfield. Directed by Matt Reeves. USA: Paramount Pictures, 2008.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Directed by Steven Spielberg. USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1977.

District 9. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. USA: TriStar Pictures, 2009.

Galaxy Quest. Directed by Dean Parisot. USA: DreamWorks SKG, 1999.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Directed by Garth Jennings. USA, UK: Touchstone Pictures, 2005.

Independence Day. Directed by Roland Emmerich. USA: Fox Home Entertainment, 1996.

Sphere. Directed by Barry Levinson. USA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1998.

The X Files. Directed by Rob Bowman. USA: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1998.

War of the Worlds. Directed by Steven Spielberg. USA: Paramount Pictures, 2005

War of the Worlds. Directed by Byron Haskin. USA, Paramount Pictures, 1953.

Star Trek: The Next Generation. Created by Gene Roddenberry. USA: Paramount Television, 1987–1994.

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Capova, K.A. (2013). The Detection of Extraterrestrial Life: Are We Ready?. In: Vakoch, D. (eds) Astrobiology, History, and Society. Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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