While virtual conferences have admittedly become commonplace since the pandemic, this particular one stands out. And not just for its name.
“There’s nothing else like it,” said Jason Wright, director of the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence (PSETI) Center, which sponsored the 2021 Assembly of the Order of the Octopus conference. “It isn’t like there are other things and this is one more; there are very few conferences in SETI at all. And this was as big as any SETI conference ever is, which I think was super impressive.”
Organized primarily by a handful of the PSETI Center’s graduate students and recent alumni, the conference was intended to bring together early career researchers working on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)—“the next generation of SETI scientists,” said alumna Sofia Sheikh, who proposed, co-organized, and presented at the conference as a graduate student and now is a postdoctoral research fellow at the SETI Institute. “These are people who are going to define what the field looks like in the next 10 to 20 years.”
And although the conference had to be held virtually because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, that turned out to be a silver lining for the target demographic.
“Holding the conference virtually was a good way to bring in new people without needing to do those things that cost money—traveling, booking a physical conference space,” said alumnus and postbaccalaureate researcher Evan Sneed, another of the conference’s organizers and presenters. “It also allowed us to socialize in different ways that I think are more conducive to long-term collaboration, and it made it very easy for us to record the talks and archive them online.”
Wright added, “I think it's really valuable to have conferences like these that are built by and for early career researchers, where senior researchers sort of stay out of the way. It can be intimidating when you're a student to give a talk with your adviser and all the other experts in the audience. This is a much friendlier and more supportive environment.”
Evolving, advancing, growing
In homage to SETI’s genesis, the organizers modeled their conference (in spirit, at least) after the very first SETI meeting—of the Order of the Dolphin—held in 1961 at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.
“We wanted to cultivate an interdisciplinary atmosphere that harkened back to the Order of the Dolphin,” said doctoral student Nicholas Tusay, another of the conference’s organizers and presenters. “The field of SETI stands to benefit a lot from interdisciplinary connections and collaborations, and that’s something we very much wanted to help cultivate in early career researchers.”
Since the 1960s, SETI researchers have seen the study of nonhuman communications on Earth as a potential key to understanding extraterrestrial communications. The dolphin was favored by the scientists at the Green Bank meeting, but Penn State’s SETI group chose another intelligent species—the octopus—with which to represent themselves.
“In fact,” Sheikh wrote for the conference’s website, “we would argue that octopi are a) better models for the sorts of nonhuman intelligences we might expect to find beyond Earth, as they share less of their evolutionary history with humans, b) just as fascinating as dolphins from an animal cognition perspective, as they display extensive tool use and problem-solving abilities, and c) extremely cool!”
The convergence of disciplines was perhaps even more striking than at Green Bank, as —in addition to SETI scientists—the organizers brought in academic researchers from the humanities as well as nonacademics, including science fiction writers, for a diverse array of individual talks, poster sessions, and panel discussions.
“We felt that it was important to have the humanities be a component of the conference because they’re an important part of SETI that’s just not talked about in the media,” Sneed explained. “So we had an entire section devoted to the humanities, for talks mostly on ethics and art. And then one of our panels was specifically sci-fi authors who have some interest in SETI.”
Wright added, “So much of what we do in SETI, we don't know exactly what we're looking for; and so many of our expectations for what we should look for can't help but come from science fiction. And so I think it's worthwhile to examine what biases that brings, where it’s a good guide and where it's a poor guide, and what science fiction authors think about that.”
“It was a really broad group of sci-fi writers, too,” said doctoral student Macy Huston, a co-organizer and presenter who also posted live updates from the conference via the PSETI Center’s Twitter account. “There were people who had Ph.D.s in science and people who had never worked professionally in science. It was a cool, different range of experiences.”
And, Sheikh added, “We had a huge variety of SETI subfields represented. We had talks on Dyson spheres, radio SETI, optical SETI, instrumentation and hardware, data analysis. And the quality of those talks—from mostly graduate students, undergraduates, and postbacs—I would say was higher than any other SETI conference I've been to.”
Capped off with luminary keynote speakers Jill Tarter, chair emeritus for SETI research at the SETI Institute, and Denise Herzing, founder and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project, the 2021 Assembly of the Order of the Octopus was an event its attendees aren’t likely to forget. And its attendees are keen to follow up on their success.
“This was the biggest SETI conference of the year,” Wright said, “and I think it shows that there's a real hunger to work on SETI, that the reason so few people work on it is not that there's nothing to do—it's that we're not generating ideas and showing people what they can work on. So I think conferences like this will really help to grow the field.”