More from the AAAS: Hunting aliens

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to talk about astrobiology. Life in space. Aliens. But when scientists talk about extraterrestrial life, what is the public really hearing?

At this morning's astrobiology session, scientists have no problem stuffing three dense hours with talk of how life got started, how our planet has been shaped by its inhabitants, and the next steps in our search for life on other planets. But one speaker, Linda Billings (George Washington University), wonders what non-scientists are really thinking when they read about the search for ET. While scientists are mooning over the possibility of spotting exotic microbes on other planets, is the public thinking Little Green Men? When astrobiologists talk about extremophiles, is the public getting ready for an alien invasion?

Billings wonders whether the public appetite for all things ET is really an outlet for a hard-wired xenophobia we're all too polite to express any other way. I've always thought that our enthusiasm for extraterrestrial life came from a good place: A place of curiosity, of seeking, and of wonder. But Billings forces me to ask whether the public interest in alien-hunting is actually more about the hunting--something violent, something you do with guns--than about the aliens.

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