SETI Jargon

In this post I shall discuss the white paper written by Jason Wright on the need for SETI to adopt standard terminology. The paper argues about the need for such an approach. In the era of advances in astrobiology, we need to find the right synergy between the two fields, and how SETI is rightfully a subset of astrobiology since it is also looking for signatures of life (biology) around celestial bodies.

The field of exoplanets has rapidly grown since the first discovery of an exoplanet around a star in 1995 [51 Pegasi b]. With advances in engineering and instrumentation we are slowly approaching the domain where we can detect the presence of an Earth like planet around a Sun like star in its habitable zone [Kasting 1991]. In tandem with this process of discovery,  the characterization of exoplanetary atmosphere and climate has also progressed using spectroscopy techniques; attempts have been made to detect biosignatures in these spectra of exoplanets.

Closer home, we also have ‘potentially’ habitable objects, which could  have harboured life in the past, or might have life in the present as well. Solar system bodies like Europa, Enceladus and Mars, are intriguing objects which might have the right conditions to sustain (or have sustained) life.

Astrobiology is generally touted to be limited to this search for biosignatures. However, as mentioned in the introduction, it must include not only biosignatures, but also technosignatures or signs of intelligent (advanced technologically) life.

A unified jargon is important in a diverse and interdisciplinary field like SETI which involves contributions and discourse from not only astronomers, but also engineers, anthropologists, linguists,  and potentially cryptologists. The paper by cites the example of Artifact SETI, and how it should be an umbrella term for various kinds of searches.

An example of this that I have encountered (a situation nowhere as close to as significant as  in SETI, however representative nonetheless), is when I tried to understand radio astronomer jargon in order to derive the relation between transmitter bandwidth and the sensitivity of a receiver. Being involved with optical and NIR astronomy, I am completely alien to radio astronomy. Despite both the fields being subsets of astronomy and governed by the same laws of Physics, there exist a large number of differences in how they measure and quantify similar parameters.  It would have been very useful if they used the same terminology or in the least had some kind of a guide to bridge the two.

Now, if we take this situation and extrapolate it to collaborations between the sciences and humanities, this problem gets severely exacerbated.  Hence, I think the framework adopted by this paper is necessary, and one that should be worked on as the field of SETI grows and involves collaborations from other fields and subjects.