Research Topic:

The panelists for the 2018 Edinburgh Science Festival event, “Get Your Hands Off Me You Damned Dirty Alien?” (from left): Ben Sachs (host), Sarah Rugheimer, David Wilkinson, Alasdair Cochrane, Mark Coeckelbergh

Since the birth of exoplanet science in 1995, more than 3500 new worlds have been discovered in orbit around distant stars. It is very natural to think that finding other worlds–tantalisingly, perhaps other inhabitants as well–should have deep consequences for humanity’s self-understanding. This motivates many scientists, and is central to the ways in which exoplanet science is communicated to the public. We want to reflect the underlying excitement and awe which exoplanet science inspires, and yet be critical and intellectually demanding, informed both by scientific advances and by conceptual resources which have been developed within philosophy for other purposes.

To that end, we aim to stimulate new collaborative research on philosophical questions raised by exoplanetary science, and to improve the quality of public debate on these issues.



  • Workshop on October 6, “Environmental Ethics and Value in the Age of Exoplanets“.  Location: St. Andrews (room TBC).  Confirmed speakers: Jacob Haqq-Misra (Blue Marble Space Institute of Science), Tony Milligan (Theology & Religious Studies, KCL), Charles Cockell (Astrobiology, University of Edinburgh)
  • Workshop on October 13, “Purpose in the Universe.”  Location: St. Andrews (room TBC). Confirmed speakers: Jimmy Lenman (Philosophy, Sheffield), Sophie-Grace Chappell (Philosophy, Open University), David Wilkinson (Theology, Durham), Jonathan Rutledge (Divinity, St Andrews)
  • Workshop later in 2018-19 academic year, “Trust and Sensation in the Communication of Exoplanet Science”.  Location: St Andrews.  A recurring theme in discussions with exoplanet scientists to date is their concern with appropriately managing public engagement and communication of their research.  There is, unsurprisingly, huge public interest in exoplanets, much of it tied to the anticipation of discovering extra-terrestrial life.  Yet there is a risk in focusing public conversation through the lens of ET, not least because it is easy to slide from ‘life’ to ‘intelligent life’.  Scientists need to communicate responsibly, but this cannot mean that they need to be as cautious as is required for a dry journal article.  How should they strike the right balance?  This topic raises issues of professional ethics for scientists.  But it also raises wider issues about trust in science, the nature and importance of public engagement, and the challenge of harnessing public enthusiasm without risking scientific integrity.  Exoplanet science is a crucible for these questions, not least because conspiracy-style thinking seems prevalent in public perceptions of the search for extra-terrestrial life.


  • 2018 Edinburgh Science Festival event, “Get Your Hands Off Me You Damned Dirty Alien”.  Panel discussion hosted by Ben Sachs, featuring Sarah Rugheimer (St. Andrews), David Wilkinson (Durham), Alasdair Cochrane (Sheffield), and Mark Coeckelbergh (DeMontfort and Vienna)


Affiliated Organisations:


  • Royal Society of Edinburgh Arts & Humanities Research Grant titled “Exoplanet Ethics”–Katherine Hawley (PI) with Ben Sachs as co-applicant. £8000 awarded for hosting of four events between April 2018 and April 2019.


  • Katherine Hawley
  • Ben Sachs
  • Tim Mulgan
  • Kevin Scharp