Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words! Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. In today’s post, I is for:
In 1959, this paper by Giuseppi Cocconi and Philip Morrison appeared in the journal Nature. The ideas Cocconi and Morrison laid out in that paper were bold, and maybe a little presumptuous, but they became the foundation for a very important subfield of astrobiology: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI for short.
The A to Z Challenge being what it is, it’s too early for us to start digging in to the subject of SETI research. But we can talk about part of it. Specifically the I part—“intelligence.” It’s fairly obvious what “search” means, and “extraterrestrial” simply refers to something that’s not from Earth. But what is the definition of “intelligence”?
What does it mean to be intelligent? How would we recognize an extraterrestrial intelligence if and when we find one? Are we sure we humans are a good example of what an intelligent life form is like? (No, wait, maybe don’t answer that last one!)
In this article from Space.com, the famous SETI scientist Jill Tarter is quoted as saying:
SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely. [SETI]… is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.
This reminds me of a joke from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that humans think we are the most intelligent creatures on Earth because we built cities and nuclear weapons and things like that, while dolphins believe they are more intelligent than us because they chose not to do those things.
So it is time we change SETI to SETT—the search for extraterrestrial technology? It sounds like Tarter would support that change. She calls the SETI acronym “problematic” and suggests that we “talk about a search for technosignatures” instead. But as regular readers of Sciency Words should know by now, once a word gets embedded in the scientific lexicon, it’s really, really, really hard to change it, no matter how problematic it might seem. Don’t believe me? Click here or here or here or here or here.
And I suspect that Jill Tarter knows this. In this report on SETI nomenclature, which is co-authored by Tarter, it says, “Definitions of intelligence are slippery […]” however, “[the word’s] use in the acronym SETI is sufficiently entrenched that we recommend against a more precise rebranding of the field.”
So what does it mean to be intelligent? For the purposes of SETI, no one knows. The term is vague to the point of being unusable for official scientific discourse. But scientists have been talking about and writing about this for decades—remember, that Cocconi-Morrison paper came out in 1959—so at this point we’re sort of stuck with the I in SETI.
Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, we’ll get the latest juicy gossip from the moons of Jupiter.