Exopolitics: political implications of the extra-terrestrial presence

Princeton University astrobiology certificate explores potential for extraterrestrial life

September 21, 2010. Michael E. Salla, Ph.D.

A Montage of Life Born in the Astronomical Context. Graphic by Keren E. Fedida: Planets and Life Certificate

Princeton University has just announced a "Planets and Life" Certificate program in astrobiology that offers students an interdisciplinary approach to the possibility of extraterrestrial life existing throughout the universe. Astrobiology, or 'exobiology' as it first developed, is a scientific discipline that by definition is interested in the biology of life beyond our planet. Astrobiology is attracting growing student and scientific attention due to the ongoing discovery of exoplanets. A recent announcement from scientists working on the Kepler Space Telescope that rocky earth-like planets are more prevalent than gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn, has fueled scientific speculation that suitable life-bearing conditions are far more common than previously thought. This has led to the realization that due to the advanced age of some solar systems, older and more advanced intelligent life very likely can be found elsewhere in the galaxy. Astrobiology conferences organized by the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Science in November 2009, and the Royal Society of London in January 2010 began the task of exploring the implications of extraterrestrial life found elsewhere in the galaxy. According to the Planets and Life Certificate program Director, Astrophysics Professor Adam Burrows, "Biology is experiencing a great renaissance … there are a lot of people making this the focus of their scientific work ... It's the fastest growing field in astronomy."

The student body at Princeton, a private university that relies on student tuition for operational expenses, was a key factor in the development of the Life and Planets astrobiology program. It was students who had earlier completed one of the courses taught by evolutionary biology professor Laura Landweber, that formed an Astrobiology Club and pushed for the creation of the certificate program. Professor Landweber's course, AST 255 "is an introduction to astrobiology and explores topics like the origin of life on Earth and the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Mars and Europa, one of Jupiter's moons." Clearly, the question of life on Mars and elsewhere in our solar system is something that continues to inspire keen student interest.

A key aspect of the new astrobiology program is that it will be interdisciplinary. According to the Princeton University News Release, the program allows "students to take cognate courses in nine departments: astrophysics, chemistry, ecology and evolutionary biology, geosciences, molecular biology, mechanical and aerospace engineering, electrical engineering, chemical and biological engineering, and computer science."

Noticeably missing from the list of departments are the social sciences of political science and sociology. Most recently, Professor Stephen Hawking, a member of the Royal Society of London that sponsored the January 2010 astrobiology conference, took scientific speculation on extraterrestrial life to its logical conclusion by introducing political and sociological questions. He asked what would they be like in terms of their motivations, and would their political agenda involve resource acquisition to the degree that they might threaten the earth? Hawking's introduction of political and sociological questions to the study of extraterrestrial life is part of the nascent field of exopolitics which has yet to be formally acknowledged by Princeton or any other university. While Princeton's astrobiology certificate for the moment emphasizes the natural sciences in its interdisciplinary program, it's hard to justify the exclusion of exopolitical questions when the world's foremost astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, is explicitly raising such questions. Princeton University is to be congratulated for creating a pioneering interdisciplinary certificate program in the growing field of astrobiology. With time, however, the program will need to expand its certificate program in order to systematically address exopolitical questions, that cannot and should not be excluded from an interdisciplinary study of extraterrestrial life in the Galaxy.


[Special Notice: The author teaches a course in the Exopolitics Institute's Certification Program titled: The Science, Spirituality and Politics of Extraterrestrial Life. Fall Semester clases have just begun. More info here.]

Further Reading

Galaxy is rich in small Earth-like planets

Stephen Hawking launches exopolitics debate

Is 2010 the year of discovery for extraterrestrial life

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