NASA / Courtesy photo
Scientific writing has a bad reputation. It’s obscure, crammed with jargon, incomprehensible to anyone but other scientists — and sometimes not even to them.
But in reality, scientists choose their words just as carefully as poets do. The results might not read like poetry (poetic precision makes you feel; scientific precision seems to do the opposite) but rest assured that plenty of thought went into picking the just-right words, even if those words are, say, “relativistic magnetostaticequilibria.”
The language of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), peppered with sci-fi vernacular, is unusually charged. Colonization, aliens, advanced civilizations: These are words with baggage. And as Congress considers restarting SETI at NASA (see: “technosignatures”), it seemed like the right time to create a SETI lexicon that could standardize the jargon and make researchers aware of the biases lodged inside their words.
So, Penn State astrophysicist Jason Wright brought together the Ad Hoc Committee on SETI Nomenclature, a six-person team including an anthropologist and a historian as well as SETI pioneer Jill Tarter. They spent months talking about how we talk about aliens. One of their key recommendations: Stop talking about aliens.
The word “alien,” at least when it’s used as a noun, is too evocative of Klingons and Wookies, little green men and late-night abductors. It has a “giggle factor” that undermines the seriousness of the science, says Wright. He is happy to leave it to the “ufologists” and Hollywood.
“Alien” is also a political word. While it may be an emotionally neutral term to an immigration lawyer, to the rest of us, it’s anything but neutral. An “alien” person isn’t just from somewhere else. She is something else, and that otherness is, as Oxford puts it, “disturbing or distasteful.” Plus, the association of “alien” with extraterrestrials “enhances” the “dehumanizing effect” of the word, immigration lawyer Careen Shannon wrote in a 2013 essay for Salon.
If not “alien,” then what? The committee members nominate “extraterrestrial species” as the preferred phrase, though “extraterrestrial society” might be even better, they write, since it allows for unfamiliar biology. Extraterrestrial society also gets the nod over “extraterrestrial civilization,” because of the “ambiguity and anthropocentrism” of the latter term. And don’t even start with “advanced,” a word that echoes the musty ethnocentrism of old National Geographics.
Even “SETI” is problematic. Take “ET.” If Earth life actually originated elsewhere — if our ancestral microbes hitched their way here aboard an asteroid, for example — would those organisms and their descendants, planted on other worlds, really be extraterrestrial? Wouldn’t we be the real ET? The report’s authors concede the point, but they conclude that the word is entrenched beyond replacement.
More awkwardness: “I” for “intelligence.” When SETI researchers talk “intelligence,” they really mean “the quality of being able to deliberately engineer technology which might be detectable using astronomical observation techniques.” But I know many smart people who can’t do that, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision an extraterrestrial society that puts its intelligence to purposes other than sending out signals that are compatible with 21st century Earth detection technology.
While it deconstructs the standard jargon of the field, the report also clarifies the definitions of various SETI activities. There’s artifact SETI — “the search for physical manifestations of technology” — and METI, or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which means sending deliberate messages from Earth with the hope that they may reach other societies. And of course, “technosignatures” — basically, the things that SETI is looking for — a rebrand that’s now preferred among policy makers and appropriators who soured on SETI decades ago.
Yet the overall effect of the report is of a sort of anti-dictionary: one that makes definitions less exact, not more. Essential words — intelligence, extraterrestrial — strain to contain all the (ahem) alien possibilities. After all, what are the right words to describe things we have never seen or never even imagined? Maybe it’s time to call in the poets.