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Group photo of SETI Symposium attendees

SETI Symposium at Penn State attracts experts from around the world

10 August 2022

In June, Penn State hosted its first SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Symposium at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. The 2022 Penn State SETI Symposium is the first meeting of its kind—dedicated exclusively to SETI—and it brought together scientists from around the world for one of the largest gatherings of SETI researchers to date. The symposium focused on astronomical, observational programs that can detect or put quantitative upper limits on technosignatures—scientific evidence of past or present technology in the universe—and theoretical work in direct support of such programs.

“The idea for this came in late 2018 when NASA held a workshop on technosignatures,” said Jason Wright, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and director of the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence (PSETI) Center. “At the end of the workshop, everyone agreed that we had to do it again, but do it where we got to set the agenda. We really wanted it be in person. A lot of people couldn’t make it because of COVID, but it was successful and, in the end, we had over 60 people registered in person and, with online participants, we had over 90 people.”

The symposium, hosted by the 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.

“This symposium has been a couple years in the making,” said Sofia Sheihk, NSF-ASCEND Postdoctoral Fellow at the SETI institute who earned a dual-title Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics and astrobiology at Penn State in 2021. “The thing that has been most impactful for me has just been actually getting to meet in person so many people that I’ve heard about over the last couple of years. I’ve read their papers, maybe I’ve been on a Zoom meeting with them, but actually getting to have a conversation with them has been really fun.”

Organizers and attendees of the inaugural Penn State SETI Symposium reflect on their experiences. Credit: Alina Lebedeva and Jillian Wesner.

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 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.

“The history of Penn State and planets and exoplanets is long and deep and vital,” said Adam Frank, Helen F. and Fred H. Gowen Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester and a participant in the symposium. “But, right now with SETI in particular, Jason’s work, I think, has really been amazing in terms of this is one of the few places where you actually have an academic SETI program.”

The search for technosignatures is broad, encompassing much of astronomy. It includes searches for communicative signals from other stars, searches for artifacts in and beyond the solar system, and other detectable evidence for technological life beyond the Earth. The symposium included scientific talks by international experts alongside students and junior researchers, a poster session, breakout sessions for discussions of specialized topics, a panel on SETI and the media, and excursions around the University Park campus and State College. It attracted researchers from the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities to discuss the latest research and potential societal impacts.

“This really is a meeting that is exclusively dedicated to SETI, whereas often it’s a larger astronomy meeting that has a SETI component,” said Rebecca Charbonneau, 2021-22 NASA/HSS Aerospace History Fellow and Historian-in-Residence at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “We get to have four full days just focused on the SETI problem. I think that’s special because this is a special community. It’s an inherently interdisciplinary field. Having all these different fields and disciplines come together to focus on this one problem for such and extended time is just a really golden opportunity.”

Following the success of the symposium, the second Penn State SETI Symposium is being planned for late June, 2023.

Image Credit: Mike Fleck, Penn State

Media Contacts
Jason Wright
Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics
Sam Sholtis
Science Writer