Claire Webb

Grant Type

Dissertation Fieldwork Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Massachusetts Inst. of Technology

Grant number

Gr. 9442

Approve Date

April 18, 2017

Project Title

Webb, Claire I., M.I.T., Cambridge, MA - To aid research on 'Technologies of Perception: Searches for Life and Intelligence Elsewhere,' supervised by Dr. David Kaiser

CLAIRE I. WEBB, then a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was awarded a grant in April 2017 to aid research on “Technologies of Perception: Searches for Life and Intelligence Elsewhere,” supervised by Dr. David Kaiser. This study asks: How have scientists constructed experimental systems to investigate and relate to unknown objects—the alien and extraterrestrial microbes—through Earthly models of life and intelligence since the late 1950s? Scientists have imagined such potential Others through Earth- and body-bound metaphors of seeing and listening. Exobiologists of the Space Age used visual devices to propose universal standards of life based on chemistry, biology, and culture even as they imagined exotic, non-Earthlike microbes on Mars and Venus. Radio astronomers at Breakthrough Listen and the SETI Institute in the Bay Area searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), meanwhile, have mobilized listening to map epistemic pathways that configures an alien who would be not just perceptible, but relatable. Ethnographic analysis of technosignatures—a topic that has not been meaningfully theorized through participant observation, despite anthropology of outer space’s scholarship on biosignatures—reveals how these research groups construct criteria of intelligence to form particular scientific selves in relation to unknown, even unknowable, lively Others. That is, SETI scientists’ invocation of listening as a somatic practice allows them to inhabit a partial perspective and conceive of ET not as a removed Other but an intelligent cosmic cousin.