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Media panel at Penn State SETI Symposium

Heard on Campus: SETI Symposium media panel

12 July 2022

Last week Penn State hosted its first SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Symposium at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. SETI stands among the most profound and aspirational quests ever pursued by humanity, and Penn State is a world leader in the search for exoplanets and an international hub for SETI research. The symposium, held June 27–30 and hosted by the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence (PSETI) Center, provided a unique forum for announcements of new research, a survey of the state of the art in the field, the opportunity for students and junior researchers to present their research, and community building.

The PSETI Center in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics in the Eberly College of Science is dedicated to advancing the search for extraterrestrial, technological life in the universe via their technosignatures—scientific evidence of past or present technology. The search for technosignatures is broad, encompassing much of astronomy. It includes searches for communicative signals from other stars across and beyond the electromagnetic spectrum, searches for artifacts in and beyond the solar system, and other detectable evidence for technological life beyond the Earth.

The 2022 Penn State SETI Symposium is the first of its kind, bringing together scientists from around the world for one of the largest gatherings of SETI researchers. The symposium focused on astronomical, observational programs that can detect or put quantitative upper limits on technosignatures, and theoretical work in direct support of such programs. As part of the program, the symposium included a panel discussion on SETI and the media.

Sofia Sheikh
NSF MPS-ASCEND Postdoctoral Fellow at the SETI institute who recently earned a dual-title Ph.D. in astronomy and astrobiology at Penn State, introduced the panel.
“SETI stories are highly visible in the media and its popularity is bolstered by both works of fiction and works of nonfiction. The amount of interest we see in SETI from the public is quite disproportionate compared to other subfields of astronomy. This environment really complicates communication around SETI because we are engaging in the audience’s preconceptions from science fiction, cultural backgrounds, and religion. This unique environment provides us with challenges as well as opportunities. This panel is going to explore those themes.”

One topic discussed was how a potential rebrand of SETI away from the search for “intelligence” to the study of “technosignatures” could impact communication about the field.

Marina Korin
Marina Koren. Credit: Mike Fleck

Marina Koren

Staff writer at the Atlantic who covers science with a focus on space exploration, panel moderator

“We heard a lot this week about how SETI could use a rebrand of sorts, and is already undergoing a rebrand. I have to say that my readers know what SETI is, but without context, they do not know what a technosignature is. How is the rebrand going and how do we communicate something like that to the public?”

Maggie Villiger
Maggie Villiger. Credit: Mike Fleck

Maggie Villiger

Senior science and technology editor at The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good.

“I agree that most of my readers don’t know much about technosignatures until we tell them about them. But that’s where you begin. You start with what people do know and you meet them where they are. So, I think it’s the time, as you are thinking about a rebrand, to start getting the word out. Start using the language you want to be using and explaining what those words mean. Explain why you are moving away from SETI. My big theme is going to be having trust in the public to understand what you are dealing with so they can, in turn, return that trust to you.”

Adam Frank
Adam Frank. Credit: Mike Fleck

Adam Frank

Helen F. & Fred H. Gowen Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, a self-proclaimed “evangelist of science,” frequent on-air contributor for NPR’s All Things Considered, and the author of three popular science books

“One question to ask is if we want that rebrand and why we want it. I remember that SETI had that ‘giggle factor.’ When I was a graduate student and you mentioned you were interested in SETI, you would still see eyes roll. But that’s not a particularly good reason to rebrand. There’s a deeper reason, that SETI refers to one particular way of doing this that has broadened quite a bit. There’s also the question of ‘intelligence.’ That definition of intelligence has really got to shift. It really carries some cultural weight and associations about what cognition is that may not make sense anymore. What we are really looking for is technology or fabricated objects.”

David Kipping
David Kipping. Credit: Mike Fleck

David Kipping

Assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia University, who also runs the “Cool Worlds” YouTube channel with over half a million subscribers where he discusses his research and related science

“Technosignatures is really taking the thing we are looking for and framing it centrally. As an observer, that’s what you want. I can only put constraints on technosignatures, I can’t truly put constraints on the existence of intelligence in universe. For that reason, I do favor the technosignatures framing. With my audience, SETI is more familiar and it is, unfortunately, synonymous with a pretty narrow perspective and that is radio. We are pursuing this in many different ways now besides just radio, so technosignatures serves the purpose of consciously expanding that dimension to include all the other ways that we are looking.”

Beyond rebranding, the panel also discussed: How to get news of a big discovery to the public? How does nature of a detection shape the message? How to convey what happens next if there was two-way communication between earth and an extraterrestrial intelligence? How to approach public interest in UFOs or unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs)? And, how do you come up with a response if people were to call a detection a hoax?