Seth Shostak Explains Why the SETI Institute Created a New Logo

Nov. 02, 2001

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

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The SETI Institute has a new logo, and some people want to know why.

For more than a dozen years, the Institutes stationery has sported the blue and white image of a radio telescope, one of NASAs Deep Space Tracking Network antennas at Goldstone, California. What could be more appropriate, you might rhetorically wonder? After all, the Institute is well known for its radio SETI experiments, including the most sensitive targeted search yet conducted by Homo sapiens, Project Phoenix. A radio telescope makes symbolic sense.

But the NASA SETI program that used the Goldstone dish ended in 1993. Today, Project Phoenix reconnoiters the sky from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, using a telescope that looks about as much like its predecessor as the carrier Enterprise looks like Robert Fultons steamboat.

But that wouldnt have been reason enough to change the logo.

The SETI Institute is also busy with a hi-tech scrutiny of nearby star systems in search of bright, laser pulses, so-called Optical SETI. The instrument wielded for this experiment is a traditional reflecting telescope, outfitted with mirrors, lenses, and a nice, white dome. It doesnt look like the Goldstone antenna, even in the dark.

That still wouldnt have been reason enough to change the logo.

The truth is that the SETI Institutes research program is far broader than these advanced quests for celestial sentience. There are nearly three dozen other astrobiology projects investigating such puzzles as the dim, early days of life on Earth. Could our planet have been seeded with critically important organic molecules from space? What about Jupiters moons? Could they be awash in simple life today? Was Mars once a livelier place, and how could we find out? These are all research questions that are as exciting as skiing the cornice on K-2. But they dont use radio telescopes.

That was reason enough to change the logo. Opting to do so wasnt easy: our institutional symbol has been around for a long time, and frankly, the old logo did convey something about our SETI searches, at least those of the radio variety. But it didnt even hint at the broad Institute research programs that seek out life on the other worlds of our solar system or that try to understand the origin of biology on Earth. The new design is intended to be as broad as our field of study.

A new logo is like a new car. Youve got to take it around the block a couple of times before you feel completely at ease. But the SETI Institute is very pleased with its new emblem, and hopes that it will soon become a symbolic synonym for exciting and groundbreaking research into cosmic biology.