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

Preliminary abstract: The question ‘Are we alone?’ has shifted in the past few decades to ‘Where else is life?’ Answers to both questions–an intelligent alien and lively signs of earthlike biology–have yet to surface. This dissertation seeks to illuminate how two communities of scientists construct experimental systems around these missing objects, operating at the edges of knowledge, through familiar metaphors of ‘seeing’ and ‘listening.’ The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and U.C. Berkeley astronomers use radio telescopes to try to perceive artifacts from an intelligent alien whose technology is considered commensurable with humans’. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology astronomy team uses optical methods to look for ‘bio-signatures’ that would indicate ‘Earth’s twin.’ This project asks how both groups search for the otherworldly objects while mining the anthropos as point of departure. How do astronomers mobilize technologies of perception to build experimental systems toward a future-oriented object? How do such processes codify ‘scientific selves’ and scientific subjectivity alongside the elusive objects of study? This multi-sited ethnographic account will trace in detail how technical practices work within and across SETI and exoplanetary praxes, contributing to the anthropology of science and outer space. I invoke feminist theory to plumb constructions of anthropocentrism and the scientific gaze, reworking the notion of a neutral observer to diversify scientific accounts of the Other.