Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

SETI In Trouble: Search For Alien Life Hurt By Search For Money

Posted by Tom Foremski - May 31, 2012

(Jill Tarter ponders the uncertain future for Alien search project SETI.)

Wednesday evening I was at a great local salon organized by Taylor Milsal and Christine Mason McCaull, which featured Jill Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research for 35 years.

Last week, Ms Tarter announced her retirement from SETI, but that was not by choice. She resigned so that SETI could continue with its work amidst big cuts that threaten to shutter the project. Her former salary will be used for operations while she tries to raise funds large enough to plug large losses in funding due to the state of California's budget cuts, and from other sources.

She gave a great talk and I spoke with her afterwards. Here are some of my notes:

- SETI needs about $2 million a year to keep going. She resigned so that her salary would not be a drain on the organization.

- The search for intelligent life in the universe is entering an exciting era where advances in the technology of telescopes, and in the analysis of massive amounts of data, mean that more of the sky can be searched for alien signals, than ever before. But, we are still very far from any form of comprehensive search. We have only examined the equivalent of a glass of water pulled from the earth's oceans.

- SETI introduced the first distributed computing network when volunteers agreed to let SETI crunch data during the bits of time they weren't directly using their computers, SETI software took advantage of the idle cycles in a PC's microprocessor, the basis for peer-to-peer computing architectures that are now very common in many applications.

- There are army of SETI volunteers look for patterns in data in a massive "crowd sourcing" project that takes advantage of the brain's "spare cycles."

- She spoke about the advanced telescopes that are so sensitive they can detect the passage of planets as they cross in front of distant suns, which has led to the discovery of 69 planets, and an additional possible 2321 solar systems. She estimates that there could be as many as half-a-billion habitable planets in our galaxy alone.

- If there are advanced extraterrestrial civilizations discovered they will have to be in existence for a reasonably long time, for us to detect them. That would be a very good sign that a technological society, such as ours, is able to survive its challenges.

- The job is difficult because the search is for "leakage" of electromagnetic signals, which would be very low power and are focused on tiny spaces, within a vast universe. Our own signal leakage is small, the largest Earth signal that could be seen by alien civilizations, would be a radar telescope in Puerto Rico, which uses a very powerful beam that can reach deep into the universe, but you would have to be directly in the path of that beam.

- Ms Tarter announced her retirement on May 22, but she isn't giving up her work, just her salary. Her goal is to stabilize SETI funding for the next five years at about $2m a year, which would pay operating costs for the telescopes, and for a handful of researchers.

- By joining SETI and taking part in the hunt for alien life, Ms Tarter believes we will learn what it is to be "Earthlings" and that realization has the potential to make a big difference in the world, uniting us and trivializing any differences between peoples.

Foremski's Take: I was shocked to hear how California State's budget cuts, loss of funding in other areas, and the lack of NASA support, has endangered the 50 year history of searching for extraterrestrial life. A $2 million a year budget is tiny -- it's something that a Google, Intel, or an IBM could easily fund, and hundreds of other companies could, too.

SETI's funders would gain a lot of goodwill, especially in engineering circles -- the production line workers who are making our future.

Recruiting the best engineers requires more than a good paycheck, or free lunches. These days it's the organizations that spark the imagination, that show a desire to dream big, and to tackle some of the most difficult challenges around, that win in the jobs market. There's few larger challenges than discovering the signals of alien civilizations. (Alien Life...brought to you by YourNameHere Corp.)

The search for alien life is embedded deep within our culture, it has inspired many generations with countless stories, books, and movies. It would be a tragedy if SETI were to cease its work, especially with such modest needs.

- Come on $GOOG, you are using the NASA airfields for your luxury jets, and you are interested in space exploration, plus the Google Foundation is sitting on cash -- kick in some dollars for SETI!

There are tremendous opportunities for marketing slogans. Here are a few I came up with (send me yours via Twitter @tomforemski.)

"Google Search knows no limits." or "SETI Search - powered by Google."

- And here's one for Intel:

"From bunny suits to space suits - wherever you find Intelligent Life you'll find Intel."

- Here's one for Facebook:

"If there are alien civilizations out there, Facebook will be the first to find them, friend them, and let them use our phone."

('ll post more slogans later...)

- - -

Also: SETI's conference is coming up on June 22-24 in Santa Clara.

Ms Tarter will be celebrated at a gala event on Saturday evening, June 23. Speakers include astronaut Mae Jemison, astronomer and "Drake Equation" author Frank Drake, and "Star Trek" actor Robert Picardo.

A message from Ms Tarter:

SETI research experiments are funded by private donations, limiting how quickly we can search these newly discovered planets for intelligent life.

The best reason to support SETI research is because it is an investment in our own future. The scientist Phil Morrison said that 'SETI is the archeology of the future.' Think about it. If we detect a signal, we could learn about THEIR past (because of the time their signal took to reach us) and the possibility of OUR future.

Successful detection means that, on average, technologies last for a long time. That's the only way another technological civilization can overlap with us in time and space. Understanding that it is possible to find solutions to our terrestrial problems and to become a very old civilization, because someone else has managed to do just that, is hugely important!

Knowing that there can be a future may motivate us to achieve it.

There's additional information here and an opportunity to make a donation: SETI Institute

Become a member of TeamSETI for $50.

(Ms Tarter speaks with a young SETI supporter.)

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