SETI's search for alien life is in trouble

SETI's search for alien life is in trouble

Summary: SETI might be forced to sharply curtail its search for alien life if it can't plug large losses in funding.

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(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 guest speaker 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, we'll 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.

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  • Well Said (and written)

    I worry that the day will come again like it did last year when the ONLY search station in the US is run by a 70 year old retired guy (myself) with ears the size of grains of sand.
    www.SETI.Net - The second SETI station in the US.
  • LOL ...

    Ok, say a Search engine DOES fund the project, and it DOES find something ... wouldn't their new slogan be ..

    "See, we can find anything, anywhere, anytime ..."

  • and just a couple more ...

    If "placeevilcompanynamehere" were to fund it, and they did find something, the slogan could be ...

    "See, we don't suck at EVERYTHING"


    "We were looking for Papa Vader, but we found something completely different ..."
  • In the meantime money is wasted on social web site

    Although I am not really convinced if SETI would find anything good. But the cost is modest and the underlying R&D might become useful in the long run. A tiny fraction of money people has spent on Facebook could help SETI run for 100 years. If FB promises to donate $200 millions to SETI, I will re-activate my account.
    • I take it...'re a regular contributor yourself?
      John L. Ries
      • Re: I take it..

        Perfect John, Just Perfect!!!
  • Maybe the aliens will fund it

    The work of this particular institution may end soon, but that won't stop individual scientists from doing further research.

    It may take a century or two, but eventually, we'll have an answer.
    John L. Ries
  • Used to run it

    I used to run the SETI software at work, but they locked down our PCs and I can't do so anymore. I wonder how many others had this happen.
  • SETI vs. Seti@home

    Some readers are not distinguishing that the Center for SETI Research and Seti@Home are distinct and separate operations. Seti@Home is at Space Sciences Lab at UC Berkley.
    David Wilson
  • SETI is an important part of our culture...

    You cannot really blame California for decreasing the use of public money to fund the SETI project, after all they have been using millions of dollars for many years with no results. But, SETI has been an important part of our culture since man first inquired what was beyond our planetary confines. SETI represents the search for the unknown and search for understanding in the spirit of Galileo, Copernicus, the ancient Mayans and all of the other star gazers throughout the eons that used the fullest limits of their technology to break through the boundaries of our perception. SETI has been the focus of countless Hollywood films and featured in books, magazines and newspapers because deep down whether one believe that there is life out there or not, one can still find fuel for the imagination and wonder at the possibilities of what if it were true. SETI is more than an organization; it is an idea that will never die until the question is answered decisively. But, for SETI to not be considered a public burden it must seek private funding and establish an endowment that will allow a continuing source of funding in perpetuity. I for one have no interest in helping SETI pay their rent, but have great interest in investing to keep the dream alive.
  • The Pseudoscience of SETI Debunked by Stanton Friedman

    Please, read this article and you might see why there is less and less enthusiasm over SETI...
    • Really?

      An article from 2004, written by someone who has drawn questionable conclusions from their own investigations, scientific or not, is the best you can come up with? Really?

      SETI uses radio astronomy (a real scientific method )
      to further real scientific discovery while at the same time discerning typical radio frequencies and radio phenomena from those that are not normally found in nature. If and when unusual radio phenomena are identified the radio frequencies are further investigated to determine their origin and scientific validity. These types of radio frequency investigations have lead to real scientific discovery according to the wiki referenced above and I quote: "These include stars and galaxies, as well as entirely new classes of objects, such as radio galaxies, quasars, pulsars, and masers. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which provided compelling evidence for the Big Bang, was made through radio astronomy."

      As I have an open mind I choose to not attempt to discredit Stanton Friedman in his assertions that UFOs are real, but I most certainly disregard his assertion that SETI, and by extension, Radio Astronomy are pseudoscience.
  • Search for intelligent life

    Maybe SETI should spend some of it's time searching for intelligent life in Washington DC.
    • lol!

      ...and aliens, too. (lizard people?)
    • Search for Intelligent Life

      Now that WOULD be a huge waste of research funds.
    • Why search for something that doesn't exist?

    • RE: Search for intelligent life

      schweddy wrote:
      [i]Maybe SETI should spend some of it's time searching for intelligent life in Washington DC.[/i]

      Just remember that the politicians in Washington, D.C., are more intelligent than the people who sent them there.

      Beam me up Scotty ...
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • You didn't even mention the 'Big Vader' Apple?

    Show me the money and I'll show you Apple. You didn't even suggest the biggest corporate hog on the planet? Rotten to the core.

    Apple would never support the SETI project...their too busy manufacturing iphones/ipads in China that could be manufactured in the US for about a $25 premium but bring the jobs home.

    Maybe Apple could use a tiny pinch of their tax savings they get by placing their 'legal' headquarters in Nevada, not California, where 99.99% of their emplyees work.
    • Not Apple's job

      Apple's job is to manufacture and sell electronic gadgets and software. SETI can and should be funded by individual contributions.

      Seriously, I don't think for-profit corporations should making chartitable contributions, beyond maybe facilitating or subsidizing those of their employees. It's enough if they take good care of their customers, employees, and investors, obey the laws, and are good neighbors in the communities where they operate. If corporate officers are philanthopically minded, then let them contribute their own money and let their employees and investors do the same (likewise, if they want to "participate in the political process").

      I do think that corporations should be required to maintain their headquarters (including the principal offices of their CEOs) in the states that issue their charters, though it would probably drive up commercial real estate prices in Delaware in the short run.

      Reply to davidmpaul:

      I've said before that limited liability should cost something (as much as the market will bear, frankly) and that it's sole proprietors and general partners (who assume full responsibility for their business activities) who should get a tax break, not corporations. That said, I take the old fashioned position that use of corprorate funds for non-business (including political) purposes is a breach of fiduciary duty unless it's explicitly authorized by the stockholders (and even then, it's probably better to sponsor a fund to which people can contribute or not as they choose). Expenditures for non-business purposes should never be declarable as business expenses.

      Corporations aren't really people either; they're legal constructs designed to limit the liability of their owners to the amount of money they invest, thus reducing the risk of investment.

      Reply to mmckee58:

      It's called the drug dealer model of marketing and it works well (sell to your target audience cheap and get them hooked). Seriously, Apple's efforts to market to schools is a large part of the reason why personal computers (and not just Apple's) are endemic in the schools today and did a good deal to produce a whole generation of MacHeads who happily bought and still buy Apple's products as adults.

      Of course, federal and state governments got their cut from the increased corporate income tax revenue (not that I think there's anything wrong with that).
      John L. Ries
      • Well said!

        Corporations are not a 'thing'. When you tax a corporation or any business enity, you are taxing PEOPLE. Corporation exists for one reason, making money for PEOPLE. If as a person I invested in APPLE, it is because I want to make money. I want them to produce their goods at low cost and sell them at high cost. IT IS CALLED PROFIT! That profit goes back to the investors... PEOPLE.