go far beyond
ASA’s recent successful launch of the Kepler Mission is a fitting capstone to 2009,
designated the International Year of Astronomy. This 12-month celebration heralds the 400
anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope to study planets in our solar system and Kepler’s
publication of Astronomia Nova. These events challenged the current thinking about the uni-
verse and presented a significant threat to the predominant 17 century worldview, ultimately
resulting in a backlash that affected scientific progress for nearly a century.
The Kepler Mission has the potential to similarly impact our 21 century view of our place
in the universe. The mission’s goal is to search for Earth-like planets in more than 100,000
distant solar systems. Some of these planets may be capable of supporting life—perhaps even
intelligent life. Should the scientific community be thinking about how to prepare society for
this eventuality? How will the earthlings handle the realization that they have neighbors? If we
detect intelligent life, should we shout “Hello there!” or should we hide?
At the OSA 2009 Winter Leadership meeting held in Washington, D.C., in February, Steven Vogt from the University of California presented a fascinating plenary talk describing the
characteristics of some of the 250 planets that have already been discovered using ground-based
telescopes and precise optical metrology. Our community developed much of the technology
incorporated into the Kepler mission: high NA, wide-diameter ultra-precision optics; low-noise,
super-resolution detector arrays; precise astronavigation technology; and sophisticated image
processing algorithms. We understand what this mission is capable of accomplishing and the
likelihood of “success.” But are we ready and willing to educate and prepare society for what
could be one of the most important and potentially disruptive scientific discoveries in the history of humankind?
Photonics technology developed by our scientific community is revolutionizing not only how
we view the surrounding universe, but also our self-perceptions. Mark Schnitzer from Stanford
University illustrated this point dramatically during his plenary presentation at the Leadership
meeting. He described how optical technology can allow precise imaging and control of the
fundamental, microscopic neural circuit structure and dynamics in live mammalian brains.
While this technology has the potential to transform our understanding and treatment of
devastating diseases such as epilepsy, it might also be used to literally read someone’s mind or
induce involuntary behavior modification. What obligations do we have, as creators of this
capability, to prepare society for fundamental challenges to our notions of privacy and freedom
of action? To paraphrase former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Should we examine [science]
in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, [or] in the light of the wrongs
it would do and the harm it would cause if improperly administered?”
At both of these plenary sessions, we presented OSA members with a number of questions
related to scientific policies and ethics. The answers, which were captured using real-time
audience response technology, were often surprising and stimulated very interesting comments
and discussion. You can see the questions and audience responses at www.surveymonkey.com/
osaleadershipsurvey, where you can answer the questions yourself and compare your opinions to
those of your colleagues.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made several recent announcements that signal a new era
of increased support for scientific exploration. This provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to engage in discussions with our colleagues in other disciplines, with policymakers and
with society at large about the nature of our investigations, their great potential and the possible
ethical challenges we are creating. Should OSA be more proactive in initiating and participating in these discussions? Clearly, we carry responsibilities for our scientific discoveries that go
far beyond their technical realization—daunting responsibilities, but I believe that the OSA
community will meet these challenges!
— Thomas M. Baer