Conversations #12 - Claire Webb

Historian & Anthropologist of Science, USC & Berggruen Institute Fellow


A conversation with Historian & Anthropologist of Science, Claire Webb—

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Hey Eclectic Spacewalkers!

Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with Claire Webb.

Claire is a historian and anthropologist of science and currently a fellow of USC and the Berggruen Institute. Her research considers future-facing technoscientific objects since the postwar era in the United States.

Her dissertation, from MIT’s HASTS program, Technologies of Perception: Searches for Life and Intelligence Beyond Earth is a history of, and current work on, scientific searches for extraterrestrial life.

“It is a historical and ethnographic dissertation whose theoretical orientations are informed by studies in science, technology, and society (STS), as well as feminist traditions that examine sensory apprehension, especially those modes that enlist seeing and hearing.

The central question of this dissertation is: How are sensory phenomenological modes of sensing the world deployed and channeled through material technologies to scout for otherworldly technoscientific objects, lively organisms, and intelligent aliens?

Reflexive alienation is a reaching for “an advanced version of ourselves,” in Tarter’s words. It is act in which imagination of the alien object conjures human subjectivity. This referential, analogical dynamism—projecting and returning from human to ET to immortals and back again—is an enactment of reflexive alienation: a mode of meaning-making through attention to both a speculative ET and Earthly desires for peace and a wondering of futuristic technology.”

She has a long personal history of being around telescopes, even working with Breakthrough Listen - UC-Berkeley’s SETI research arm, and collaborating with none other than Jill Tarter. Jodie Foster’s rough characterization in the film Contact should jog your memory of who that is.

Our conversation was far-reaching, thought-provoking, and exactly the type of conversation for us to get back into the podcasting swing of things again. We talked about Claire’s early inspirations, The Overview Effect and Earthrise photo, The Drake Equation/Fermi Paradox, for E.T., and what type of techno futures we can imagine on worlds beyond Earth, amongst a number of other interesting topics. I thank Claire for her time, research, and eclectic mind.

I hope you enjoy the conversation!


  • Early influences, wanting to be an astronaut, and The Power of Ten short film (03:15)

  • Dr. Jill Tarter’s inspiration, founding member of SETI (11:00)

  • Claire’s academic journey (16:55)

  • What are history, anthropology, and STS studies and how do they interact? (30:55)

  • How should a layman think and interact with history unfolding? (42:15)

  • Claire’s article Worlds Beyond Ours in NOEMA Mag (44:50)

  • The Overview Effect, Earthrise photo, and how we see ourselves among the cosmos (58:04)

  • MDRS Mars Analog Missions and “resonance” (1:04:30)

  • The Drake Equation and The Fermi Paradox (1:14:05)

  • Claire’s dissertation Technologies of Perception: Searches for Life and Intelligence Beyond Earth (01:24:35)

  • Moving out to Los Angeles, USC & Berggruen Institute fellowships, and new research into feminist posthumanism. (01:52:15)

    • That project asks: What are the computational processes scientists have used since the 1950s to configure software and hardware—assemblages that are shifting traditionally perceived thresholds of liveliness—to find novel forms of life beyond Earth?

  • Claire would quote a poem by Sappho or Rainer Maria Rilke if she was experiencing the Overview Effect with the eyes of the world upon her. (01:58:10)

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