Astronomer Jason Wright submitted an interesting paper about SETI jargon to the recent Decoding Alien Intelligence workshop and has posted a summary post on his blog. He follows on from earlier pleas, particularly from Ivan Almar, to standardize terminology.
SETI, Wright argues, is a subdiscipline of astrobiology distinguished by its search for “technosignatures” or detectable traces of technology. He further divides the field into “communication SETI” and “artefact SETI”, and under his taxonomy most subdivisions would be identified as [descriptor] SETI. Thus “probe SETI” or “Dysonian SETI”. This is superior to previous attempts such as the creation of derivative acronyms such as SETA, SETV, METI, CETI and so on.
It feels like there has already been some movement in this direction, although there are always fits and starts. Increasingly easy online access to prior works certainly helps the process, and standardizing terms would hopefully create a feedback loop. It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues, and what terms come to be used.
“Technosignatures” is one term that will definitely continue to increase in prominence, both for its utility in encompassing the entirety of the search subject, but also perhaps playing a part in the continued efforts of the SETI field to legitimize itself through association with astrobiology and its “biosignatures”. I’m not arguing against this in any way. It can be both conceptually correct to place SETI within astrobiology and also an interesting sociological phenomenon.
It’s only a minor thing, but I’m not convinced when Wright mentions that “communication SETI” and “artefact SETI” have a degree of overlap. Artefacts can be used for carry or signal information, yes, but the detection methodology remains distinct from information transmitted via electromagnetic radiation. There’s an overlap at the translation stage, but by then aren’t we talking about something beyond the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?
The presentation of Wright’s paper by Sofia Sheikh will apparently be public at some point, but in the meantime do check out the paper.
1. I believe it was Milan Cirkovic who came up with this term, rather than Robert Bradbury.
2. Despite the efforts of astrobiology to distance itself from SETI for its own reasons: “Traditional SETI is not part of astrobiology”, Wright quotes the 2015 NASA Astrobiology Strategy as saying.