SETI Jargon

SETI has a jargon problem. This is not news; I think everyone in the field appreciates that we need to be more consistent in the words we use.

One reason this matters is that the search for alien technology is really a very broad endeavor (best thought of, I have argued, as a subfield within astrobiology). It includes not just radio astronomy  but infrared astronomy, optical and NIR instrumentation, exoplanets, Earth system science, game theory, social sciences such as anthropology, galactic astrophysics, stellar astrophysics, time-domain astronomy, computer science, multi-messenger astronomy, planetary science, remote sensing, media and communications, law, and political science.

These fields all have their own jargon, and if we want them to be part of SETI we should avoid misappropriating their jargon.  For instance “civilization” has concrete and jargon meaning in anthropology and archaeology. I imagine anthropologists at our meetings wincing every time we use the term in a very different (vaguer, more generic) way than they do.

Indeed, “intelligence” itself is problematic and not an ideal term. The term is nebulous (is an ostrich intelligent? Is a bee colony?) but also presumes much about how an alien species’ psychology works.

Why shouldn’t we assume aliens will be “intelligent” or have “civilizations”? As many have noted, we should not assume that the first extraterrestrial technological species we discover is anything like us: it might not be a collective of individuals, might not be “conscious” in the way we are, might not organize itself with anything like politics, might not be animal, might not be planet-based, etc. etc. etc. Science fiction is filled with potential SETI signals of things that look nothing like “civilizations”, from Hoyle’s Black Cloud to the Borg to the Monolith.

Even more than being careful in not misusing established terms, many have noted that we use many of our own terms inconsistently (Iván Almár has been particularly persuasive on this point, and I’m certainly guilty on this score.)

So, as part of the SETI Institute’s Decoding Alien Intelligence workshop this month and in response to Nathalie Cabrol’s call for white papers an broadening our conception of SETI, I submitted something about how we think about SETI as a field and the jargon we use.

I couldn’t make it, but Penn State graduate student Sofia Sheikh went and presented the paper for me.

My recommendations:

First of all, the field needs a name. The term SETI has variously been used to refer strictly to radio searches, specific NASA programs, to any search for communication, and broader searches, and has been used both to include and to distinguish from efforts such as searches for artifacts.

I agree with Almár that SETI should be the name of the entire field. One problem is that this it includes “intelligence”, which I have just argued is not a good term, but I feel that “SETI” is such a strong “brand” at this point—such a well-known and widely used term—that I think it is best to use it in a jargon sense of “whatever distinguishes technological species from other species that makes them easier to detect because of their technology”.  A rebranding is very unlikely to be successful (I would support it if everyone agreed to start using a single better term).

Having adopted “SETI” as the name of the field because of something like stare decisis, it follows that the term “ETI” is what we are looking for, again in a jargon sense.

I also like Almár’s definition ““the collective name of a number of activities, based on science, aimed to detect messages, signals or traces” of extraterrestrial intelligence.

I also really like the term technosignatures (whose origin I’ve been trying to track down, see this tweet:)

But again, we use it inconsistently.  I prefer the term to include any technological signature, including communication, both because that is the term’s natural meaning and because the contrast with biosignatures helps identify SETI’s place within astrobiology

I like to divide SETI into several classes, including communication SETI and artifact SETI, being the searches for deliberately transmitted information carriers and the effect of technology on the environment.  Other terms for the latter abound (technomarkers, Dysonian SETI, SETA…) and we should settle on one.

Within artifact SETI then there are lots of ways of searching: waste-heat SETI, probe SETI, Solar System SETI, and so on.

METI or active-SETI would also then constitute a subclass of SETI.

Paul Davies coined the term “nature-plus” which is the best term I’ve seen to describe the idea that alien technology could be so advanced that it will look like a force of nature; this could include contamination of stellar abundances, artificially modulated Cepheid variable stars, or even something like Hoyle’s Black Cloud.  It’s not exactly what Davies intended, but its the best label I could find for this kind of search.

Finally, I think it’s important to define a beacon as a signal or artifact meant to be discovered by strangers. The term has been used in other ways, but this is the term’s most natural meaning, and helps us identify which sorts of signal searches can be informed by the concept of a Schelling point. The latter term has many many names in the filed (“strategy of mutual search”, “convergent search strategies,” “attractor for SETI”, “synchrosignals”) generated as people rediscover Schelling’s insight, but we should honor game theory’s prior art here and recognize the value of needing to think about assumptions of common knowledge that we make when looking for “magic frequencies” and such.

Finally, we should avoid terms like “colonize” and “alien race” because of the social baggage they bring along. (This is not because I think we should be PC, but because we should be precise: if you really do mean to project our notions of colonization and race onto alien species with whom we share no evolutionary descent, much less culture, then by all means use those terms).

So that’s my reasoning and set of preferences for jargon, but I recognize this needs to be a collective decision in the community, and I suspect that the final answer will arise collectively and organically, and not by fiat.  Already we’ve received good feedback (CETI is probably its own category, distinct from METI, as Jill Tarter pointed out; “artificial” is a difficult and probably problematic term we should define better, as Frank Drake has pointed out).

Anyway, I think Sofia’s presentation will be public at some point, and the paper is available here at the conference website, and an updated version with the figure below is on the arXiv here.

SETI as Astrobiology-t593u0

7 thoughts on “SETI Jargon

  1. J.Spencer

    As a writing instructor for the natural sciences, I found this post to illustrate the epistemic nature of jargon.

  2. Harry R Ray

    I just found out that it was observed by the Kepler space telescope independently from Boyajian’s star and therefore already has a KIC designation: KIC8462696, so I guess we’ll just go with that for now. FYI: The Kepler catalog identified it as a K dwarf, not an M dwarf, and showed a 0.02 magnitude brightening on its own over a two year period, probably due to a stellar activity cycle. Just guessing, but if it does turn out to be a K dwarf, that means that it is almost certainly a BACKGROUND star instead of a FOREGROUND star, and a very fast moving one at that,

  3. jtw13 Post author

    In most cases we don’t actually know whether an apparent binary is bound or not, and it’s problematic if we have to name stars based on something that can be hard to determine (people still argue about whether Proxima is bound to Alpha Cen A&B!). So binary nomenclature is based on apparent association (usually anything within 1″ is presumptively bound) instead of real associations:

    http://ad.usno.navy.mil/wds/wmc/wmc_post191.html

    That’s important so that things don’t have their name change when we find new stars or learn they’re unbound, as here!

  4. Harry R Ray

    Dr Wright: Thanks for the reply, however,this confuses me even more. I thought that “A” and “B” designations were used ONLY when the two stars were actually a binary SYSTEM, and not a visual binary, which appears to be the case. Of course, I am unfamiliar with the Kepler KIC protocol, so I guess it could still be appropriate.

  5. jtw13 Post author

    I think KIC 8462582 B is a fine and appropriate name for it. The stars that deserve eponyms are those that get them organically. I pushed for “Boyajian’s Star” because I was seeing “WTF” and “Tabby’s Star” popping up in the professional literature, where such informal terms don’t belong. It was clear that astronomers were striving to use a more mnemonic name, so I pointed out that we have a rare but well-established way for that to happen and worked to plow that row.

    If this faint star ends up getting called something other than KIC 8462582 B all the time, then perhaps we can talk about an eponym. But certainly it shouldn’t be me.

  6. Robin Datta

    How would a post-biological intelligence be included in astrobiology? As astropostbiology?

  7. Harry R Ray

    Dr Wright: Speaking of “jargon”, since Boyajian’s Star’s “companion” now appears to be separate entity in its own right, if it is proven in the future that a face-on Kuiper belt of uneven composition orbiting it is the cause of the flux variations of Boyajian’s Star(assuming that it IS a FOREGROUND star), it may be deserving of a “name” as well. Would Wright’s Star be appropriate, since you were part of the team that discovered it while observing Boyajian’s Star, or would Clemens’ Star be more appropriate, since his team discovered the true nature of the star?

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