The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Suddenly Has a New Logo

Questions take the lead in Trevor Beattie's SETI design

With help from BMB founder/chairman Trevor Beattie, the SETI Institute—devoted to, among other things, the search for technologically sophisticated life on worlds orbiting other stars—has released a new logo that features a question mark smack-dab at the lead. 

Beattie, a space fanatic, designed the new logo, calling it a challenge and a privilege.

"SETI is all about answering a profoundly important question: Are we alone?" he says. "There's already a question mark hidden in the 'S' of SETI. In designing this new logo, we simply freed it up."

"SETI," an acronym for "search for extraterrestrial intelligence," is a blanket term that encompasses the scientific quest for finding intelligent life out yonder. Formal investigation kicked off in the early 1900s, after the advent of radio, and has included funded efforts from people like Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and even Stephen Spielberg (who helped fund Project META, the "Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay" spectrum analyzer that was conceived in 1985 and exists to this day). 

Here's the complete logo:

"No one has a better claim on ownership of the question mark than the SETI Institute," Beattie says. "And soon, perhaps very soon, its scientists may find answers to the long-standing question of the ubiquity of life." 

Here's how the logo looks in the wild. It appears on the nonprofit's website in the upper left-hand corner, but is also being used to illustrate articles, where the dot under the question mark is replaced by a given planet being discussed:

It even works with rings!

The tastefulness of that new convention aside, SETI calls its new identity "bold and economical," quoting designer Saul Bass' rule of thumb for logo design: "Symbolize and summarize."

The inquisitive logo replaces one that featured a cluster of dots forming the distinct shape of a sphere at the center. To be frank, we preferred its subtlety, even if it was a hair cartoony:

But change has never been comfortable. Consider how quickly we forgot about the Syfy rebranding.

"As we embark on a new chapter in our 32-year history of exploration and discovery, our new logo is a fitting and compelling icon for our quest," says CEO Bill Diamond of the SETI Institute. "With this symbol, we embrace the essence of science's mission—to be curious, and to seek understanding through groundbreaking research." 

The original SETI logo, released when the SETI Institute was formally created in Nov. 20, 1984, simply featured a satellite dish facing space. 

It feels retro, naturally—but then again, the new one does, too. That's probably not a problem: SETI is the stuff of sci-fi blurring with our immediate reality, and science fiction as a genre has always embraced retro aesthetics even as it imagines our future. There's probably a nice proverb about the cyclical nature of advancement locked somewhere in there. 

The SETI Institute covers everything from the quest for microbial life within our solar system, to technologically sophisticated beings on other, far-off worlds. It employs 120 scientists, technicians and staff. This time last year, SETI launched the Breakthrough Message program, a competition to design a digital message that could be transmitted from Earth to an extraterrestrial civilization, with a prize pool of $1 million. 

The program—funded by Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner—pledged "not to transmit any message until there has been a wide-ranging debate at high levels of science and politics on the risks and rewards of contacting advanced civilizations."

No message has yet been chosen, and SETI doesn't really plan to send one at all. In fact, the politics of contact with other beings are among its most fraught issues.

"We have many examples where a technologically advanced civilization contacted a technologically less advanced civilization," says science fiction writer David Brin, evoking the memory of the European colonization of Africa and the Americas. "And in every one of those cases, there was pain. Even when both sides had the best of intentions." 

SETI pioneer Jill Tarter, an astronomer who inspired the main character in Carl Sagan's Contact, agrees that prudence is key. "We should recognize that asymmetry [in technological sophistication], and allow the older technologies to take on the greater burden of transmitting," she says. "We should listen, first, as youngsters." 

Meanwhile, SETI is powering on, question mark in hand. "We are engaged in the definition and re-examination of concepts and hypotheses in astrobiology, and are now expanding the tools deployed in the search for intelligent life beyond Earth," says Diamond. 

"With this bold new brand, we launch a new era in our efforts to understand mankind's place in the cosmos."

If you're down to join SETI's mission, become a principal investigator. But if, like Tarter, you'd rather lurk like a youngster, just sign up for updates at SETI.org—where you'll also be bombarded by myriad examples of the new logo being put into fervent use.