Few believe that the discovery of extraterrestrial life is imminent. However, just as scientists long theorized that there were planets orbiting other stars -- but could not prove it until new technologies and insights broke the field wide open -- many astrobiologists now see their job as to develop new ways to search for the life they are sure is out there.
The most intensive effort at the moment is focused on Mars, where NASA's robotic lander Phoenix is digging up soil and ice in search of organic material. The automated lab has excited scientists by finding many of the nutrients needed for life, although it has not found anything that was, or is, living. Also, photos and other data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter produced dramatic new evidence this month that the planet was once home to vast lakes, flowing rivers and a variety of other wet environments that had the potential to support life.
To some, debating the implications of discovering extraterrestrial life is premature at best, because -- all UFO "sightings" aside -- none has ever been found.
For one thing, as Kaufman's reference to UFOs points up, many people already believe that advanced ET civilizations exist and are even trying to contact us.
In a 2005 poll, two-thirds of Americans believe life exists on other planets and of these, eight out of ten think that alien civilizations are more advanced than ours. In other words, whatever the effect on public attitudes of finding life on other planets would be, that effect has already happened.
Why does that matter? Because the oft-heard claim that finding extraterrestrial life would be a world-changing science discovery is off side.