Life as-we-don’t-know-it: research repertoires and the emergence of astrobiology
This thesis presents an ethnographic study of the repertoires, sets of social and material practices, that scientists adopt to practice and promote the search for life in the universe, commonly known today under the disciplinary label of astrobiology. In particular, I take the expression “life as-we-don’t-know-it” as an entry point to look into the role of non-knowledge as a cultural resource in the opening of new spheres of inquiry. Throughout this thesis, I investigate the tensions and negotiations related to the definition of life, a central issue in astrobiology, and the way scientists are successfully shifting the boundaries of what is considered legitimate science to include the study of extra-terrestrial lifeforms. Unlike most previous work on the definition of life, this thesis does not formulate or support any definition and does not take a position on the question of to which disciplinary domain “life” legitimately belongs – on the contrary, it takes definitions and disciplines as social institutions with flexible boundaries. To explore these issues, I engaged in a multi-sited ethnographic study that brought me to the different locations in which astrobiologists’ activities take place, from conference venues to astronomical observatories, laboratories and field sites (such as underground caves and Icelandic volcanoes), following the lines of research that today form, at their intersections, the field of astrobiology. Life “as-we-don’t-know-it” soon emerged as a central theme in contemporary astrobiology. A commonly used phrase for extra-terrestrial and alien life, it summarizes and stands for the uncertainties and unknowns surrounding the definition of life and the design of life-detection experiments. These unknowns about life are not simply a void to be filled, but the result of a process of social construction, a collective achievement. This empirical account complements and challenges existing literature about scientific change and knowledge production by focusing on the construction of a collective agreement about not-knowing and its deployment as a specific research repertoire. The concept of repertoire is a useful thinking tool for the sociologist looking into astrobiology and its social dynamics because it does not describe change as fundamentally caused and shaped by theoretical developments. On the contrary, it both takes account of the material and institutional changes that accompany, ground or undermine the emergence of a research field and calls for consideration of the performative aspects of science. I conclude by arguing that the agreement on what constitutes life – familiar and alien, Earthly or otherworldly – is an ongoing negotiation between astrobiologists’ epistemic practices and what counts as a meaningful present and future for space exploration. This opens up a space for sociological inquiry about the particular social processes through which the emergence of astrobiology as a discipline requires collaborations to be established, allows for new interactions, and evokes previously unforeseen associations, thus constantly unsettling present imaginaries about the future.