Parasitic SETI and Parasitic Space Science
Can “technosignatures” be the ground of a rapprochement with NASA?
Recently there have been signs that NASA may consider a rapprochement with SETI and SETI scientists, after more than twenty years of a de facto NASA ban on funding SETI. It’s not yet clear how far this rapprochement will extend, but NASA did lend its name to the NASA Technosignatures Workshop (NTW18) last September. I wrote on Twitter that the term “technosignatures” may be more palatable than “SETI,” which may sound like an overly-subtle gloss on the situation, but it is still significant. It is conceivable that NASA will consider funding projects that mention “technosignatures” while continuing to pass over any project that mentions “SETI.”
The terminological question has come in for a lot of discussion lately. We have seen the explicit consideration of SETI terminology in Wright’s paper “Taxonomy and Jargon in SETI as an Interdisciplinary Field of Study” and in the collective effort “Recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee on SETI Nomenclature” by Jason T. Wright, Sofia Sheikh, Iván Almár, Kathryn Denning, Steven Dick, and Jill Tarter (which I discussed in a newsletter). The need to re-brand SETI was discussed in ‘Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence’ Needs a New Name, SETI Pioneer Says by Calla Cofield.
Jason Wright has also argued strongly that SETI is and ought to be a part of astrobiology (cf. “SETI is Part of Astrobiology”), and NASA has been deeply involved with astrobiology since its inception (cf. The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology by Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick). If SETI is part of astrobiology, and NASA was present at the foundations of astrobiology, then it ought to follow that NASA’s astrobiology program should include SETI as an integral component.
Because for many years SETI has been largely frozen out of government funding through NASA, which would be its natural home, SETI funding efforts have taken creative forms. One of these creative ways of doing SETI science on the cheap has been projects that can be described as “parasitic,” “piggyback,” and “opportunistic.” This was taken up explicitly by SETI notable Jill Tarter in 1984 in “Parasitic, Piggyback and Opportunistic SETI: It’s Cheap and It Just Might Work?”
A year prior, in 1983, the idea was already floated in “The Berkeley parasitic SETI program” by S. Bowyer, G. Zeitlin, J. Tarter, M. Lampton, and W. J. Welch. And since then we have seen, “The SERENDIP piggyback SETI project” by M. Lampton, S. Bowyer, D. Werthimer, C. Donnelly, and W. Herrick (1992) and “An Opportunistic Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) with the Murchison Widefield Array” by S. J. Tingay, C. Tremblay, A. Walsh, and R. Urquhart (2016). The latter paper characterizes their “opportunistic” SETI as follows:
“In this Letter, we present a first, and opportunistic, SETI pilot experiment with the MWA, in the frequency range 103–133 MHz, placing limits on narrow band radio emission toward 38 known planetary systems. The experiment is opportunistic in the sense that the observations were undertaken for a spectral line survey of the Galactic Plane that is ongoing; utility of the data fora SETI experiment was realised post-observation.”
There is a kind of subtle irony in SETI science having to operate parasitically on other projects deemed more fundable, or, at least, projects that would not draw the ire of politicians looking for a soft budgetary target to attack. Arguably, whatever public support that there is for space exploration (and however correct or mistaken it may be to connect space exploration with SETI), derives from the hope, perhaps even the titillating hope, of finding something “out there” that would mean that we are not alone.
I have often said that the excitement over things like exoplanet searches always turns on whether the planets are habitable, and excitement over whether the planet is habitable largely turns on whether we can ever determine whether or not these planets have life, and the excitement over whether or not we can determine if these planets have life largely turns on whether that life could be intelligent, and the excitement over whether or not this life could be intelligent largely turns on whether we might possibly communicate with or travel to these intelligent beings.
I’ve read a few candid comments to this effect (I can’t remember the source), and I have no doubt that this is the case. In the same way that conservation biology has an easier time raising money to fight for charismatic megafauna but has a much more difficult time raising money based on unattractive or very small animals, so too space science efforts do better when they are related to some “sexy” space science topic like aliens — but this has to be done sotto voce, with a wink and a nudge, because NASA, to be taken seriously, must keep up the appearances of a buttoned-down science prof.
In a sense, then, it is space science that is parasitic upon SETI and human spaceflight (which appeals as a source of national pride in accomplishment), which, when the latter dominated NASA and NASA’s budget, took the lion’s share of the money and left little for space science. In recent decades, the focus has been more on space science, and so it is SETI (rather than prestige) which is the unspoken background to what is going on in the foreground.
While I care deeply about space science, and I know how much NASA’s space science programs have transformed our knowledge of the universe, few in the public share my sentiments, and they cannot be expected to so share these sentiments. But they can share an interest in the “charismatic megafauna” of astrobiology, which are the intelligent aliens that SETI is seeking.
If NASA can embrace technosignatures as a part of astrobiology, it may find a way to excite the interest of the public while maintaining its scientific respectability. And if that requires a shift in terminology, I suspect that SETI researchers will be ready to make that shift. Of course, any scientific discipline, as it evolves, eventually revises its terminology, as it usually begins with imprecise terms taken from ordinary language and eventually settles upon more formalized usages that are defined with scientific precision. There is scientific precision in spades to be found in SETI research papers. What is wanting in SETI (and in technosignatures, for that matter) is the conceptual framework within which these terms of formulated. SETI science is strong, but its concepts are often weak and ambiguous. I have had this on my mind for some time, and I hope to be able to write more about this as I clarify my own thoughts on the matter.