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Space scientists, humanist scholars to explore outer space from new perspective

Space agencies and scientists are tirelessly working to make manned missions back to the Moon and then onwards to Mars a reality. The technologies involved are awe-inspiring, but what challenges do historians, philosophers or sociologists expect us to face in an era of interplanetary exploration and, perhaps, colonisation?

To find out, the European Science Foundation (ESF), European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) are co-hosting a conference in Vienna, on 11-12 October 2007, at which humanist scholars and space scientists will come together, for the first time in Europe, to discuss humankind’s presence in space from non-traditional perspectives. The conference Humans in Outer Space – Interdisciplinary Odysseys will give guiding insight into how once we find a way to survive in outer space we will also face issues that can be best addressed in the light of modern understanding of historical events.

Issues that conference delegates will explore include the philosophical and theological consequences of contacting alien intelligences, the marketing of space exploration, and the legal frameworks that will be needed if space-faring nations are to co-operate peacefully.

The event is being organised in part by an ESF Steering Committee chaired by Professor Luca Codignola, a historian at the University of Genoa. He is particularly interested in what history can tell us about the challenges we may face if space explorers make contact with alien civilisations.

“The so-called ‘Columbian Exchange’ that took place around 1492 was a typical case in point. It changed the Western way of conceiving the globe; it forcefully challenged its theology; it allowed for a free flow of bacteria, germs and microbes that almost wiped out the American peoples,” he explained.

Professor Codignola prepared for the upcoming Vienna conference by helping to organise a preliminary seminar, held earlier this year in Genoa. The seminar was attended by 21 leading thinkers from diverse humanist and scientific disciplines, 10 of whom presented short papers.

Gísli Pálsson, for example, an anthropologist from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, presented “Lucy in the Sky… Out of Africa, Out of Earth,” in which he looked at whether our understanding of how human cultures interact can help us imagine what it would be like to contact non-human cultures.

The seminar was also attended by a luminary in historical research, Dr Alfred Crosby, who originated the concept of the ‘Columbian Exchange’ in the 1970s. He presented a paper entitled ‘The Space-Roving Human Being and His and Her Inhabitants: Micro-Organisms and Extraterrestrial Travel.”

“The science community does not really seem to be aware of the fact that a number of issues and concerns that they are dealing with, such as the consequences of meeting with unknown pathogens, are known and have long been studied by historians and ethnologists,” Prof Codignola offered.

“As for the humanities scholars, technical difficulties relating to space voyaging and especially its time frame, usually escape them. We all felt it was rather strange that the two groups rarely, if ever, meet to discuss space-related issues,” he added.

The upcoming Vienna conference will feature six successive sessions and 21 speakers. The conclusions from these sessions will be documented by the ESF in a position paper entitled Vienna Vision on Humans in Outer Space. The ESF will distribute this paper to all interested stakeholders in the academic world, space agencies, intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations, the media and politicians involved in space and research-related initiatives.

Prof Kai-Uwe Schrogl, Secretary General of the ESPI and Chair of the conference, commented: “Mankind’s future in outer space will require a comprehensive view including the input in particular by the humanities and social sciences, as well as the reflection of the manifold trans-utilitarian aspects that make space exploration a province of all mankind."

Dr. Jean-Claude WORMS | European Science Foundation
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