Listening to the Universe

The Search for Life at the Dawn of an Interstellar Age

This research project focuses on the interdisciplinary search for life and intelligence beyond Earth as conducted in the United States between the 1950s and the present day and is based in part on ethnographic fieldwork and interdisciplinary collaboration conducted between 2010 and 2020 with the SETI and astrobiology communities.

Scholars of outer space have studied how dominant narratives increasingly frame space exploration broadly as the search for new “frontiers” of resource extraction, commercialization, and market expansion. Increasing activity in the commercial space exploration and settlement industry has further popularized narratives about the inevitability of reproducing dominant culture in space, what human encounters with the cosmos will look like, and how they will shape our relationship with life on Earth.

Researchers in astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) study and speculate about possible forms of life, culture, society, intelligence, civilization, and technology, that could exist elsewhere in the universe and how to search for these forms; from radio signals to artificial intelligence. This research is often oriented around popularly-held beliefs about divisions between nature vs. culture, biology vs. technology, human vs. non-human, primitive vs. advanced, and other related dualisms, hierarchies, and histories of ideas.

Astrobiology, SETI, and related contact-seeking efforts are fields within space exploration where it is especially necessary to question these dualisms that have shaped much of the current dominant social, economic, and knowledge producing endeavours, and have in turn shaped how many humans interact with one another and with all life here on Earth. Challenging many of these beliefs is also necessary in order to overcome research impediments in the search for life in the universe and to understand whether we are prepared as a species to encounter such new life.

Among other themes that emerge in the search for life, I look for diverse ways of encountering outer space and recognizing how intimacy with space can be found in everyday life on Earth. I explore our interdependence with space and examine how outer space and the search for life spans sites and scales, appearing as place, environment, text, and object, through fieldwork-based accounts, as well as fiction, imagination, and insight-based understandings of interbeing. I draw on ideas shared during academic meetings, workshops, and conferences that I attended as a participant, as well as ideas from science, speculative fiction, and popular culture. I propose a Radical First Contact protocol for encountering life which pushes the limits of anthropological and astrobiological imaginations beyond the traditional scope of ethnographic subjects and functional definitions of intelligence, technology, civilization, and life in astrobiology and SETI. I use the concept of interbeing to further question how and why the search for life and intelligence often overlooks non-human life and intelligence here on Earth, and what this means for the search.

As researchers build practices and narratives around the promises and threats of contacting life and intelligence in space they work within a constellation of speculative habitable worlds which are inscribed by beliefs, stories, assumptions, senses, histories, and sciences. What at first may seem to be a remote, insensate, and desolate emptiness out in space between the stars is revealed through this research as an intimate, poetic, and habitable home where we are already living together with all life, in cosmic interbeing.

[This project is in process and the description is subject to regular revision. This research is part of my “Science in the Space Between Stars” project and is supported by funding from the Vanier CGS program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.]

Science in the Space Between Stars

Interstellar space is the region of outer space that begins immediately past the edges of our solar system. Although interstellar space is often described as “the space between the stars” it is not empty (NASA JPL 2013). Scientists exploring beyond the limits of our solar system venture into interstellar space, and beyond into intergalactic space, in order to “discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars” (NASA Astrophysics 2016). My current research is multi-sited, ethnographic fieldwork with scientists in the U.S. and Canada as they explore beyond our solar system.

Exploration beyond our solar system is both a foundational aspect of scientific research in astronomy and astrophysics as well as an emergent frontier in the search for extraterrestrial life and efforts to send spacecraft to another star. To examine both the foundations and frontiers, I am working with scientists in three areas: (1) Observation in astronomy and astrophysics, (2) Contact through astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and (3) Travel with spacecraft.

Scientists are launching unprecedented interstellar exploration efforts just as the future of life on Earth faces extraordinary danger at the dawn of the so-called Anthropocene era. Interstellar exploration is expanding while anthropogenic influence on our planet and globalizing inequality produce war, famine, drought, refugee crises, fires, flooding, storms, and other threats. This project aims to understand a scientific research program focused beyond these threats, beyond Earth, beyond our solar system, and beyond the present time during this moment of planetary crisis – a series of scientific practices which look to the furthest spatial, temporal, cultural, social, and technological limits of human and non-human possibility.

My objectives in this study are to understand how imaginative, social, institutional, and cultural contexts and influences shape the science of interstellar exploration. A concurrent objective is to understand the role of social science within interdisciplinary space exploration research. This project is motivated by my curiosity about the ways scientists come to think of and engage with interstellar space, how they imagine and prepare for the possibility of extraterrestrial life and interstellar travel, and how that research in turn shapes the ways scientists and publics imagine futures on Earth and beyond. This project expands my previous work on the anthropology of the interstellar (Oman-Reagan 2015).

[This research is supported by the Vanier CGS program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.]



Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivists and Occupy Wall Street

This research project examined transnational connections between the global Occupy movement and online activists in Indonesia. During two years of fieldwork in New York City, online, and in Indonesia, I explored what constitutes an “occupation” for online participants in the Indonesian Occupy movement and what it means for activists to “occupy” in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony. Through this research I produced the first ethnographic account of the Indonesian Occupy movement.

In my MA thesis, “Occupying Cyberspace: Indonesian Cyberactivists and Occupy Wall Street” I consider how Indonesian activists adopted Occupy as an umbrella for solidarity among existing counter-hegemonic activist groups and causes. Looking at the politico-legal situation in Indonesia and the emergence of Occupy, I examine how activists created expanded meanings of the word “occupy.” I look at Occupy as a framework for reconsidering the past and ask what it means to Occupy on a site of multiple historical “occupations.” Turning to movement histories and my informants’ memories and biographies, I then situate the Occupy movement within Indonesian histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Suharto’s New Order period. Finally in an examination of indigenous activism, I look at online activity around an ongoing struggle in West Papua, and how this online engagement works to direct attention toward national governments’ complicity in neocolonial resource extraction, land theft, and threats to indigenous communities.

[This research is supported by Hunter College, CUNY, the Department of Anthropology at Hunter College, CUNY, and also made possible by the Critical Languages Scholarship Program of the U.S. Department of State.]