E.T. call waiting

By Phil Plait | April 28, 2011 7:02 am

If aliens call, who will listen?

For the past couple of decades it’s been astronomers and engineers at SETI, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. But a desperate lack of funds has forced them to mothball their Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio dishes in northern California.

That sucks.

The budget crisis has hit nearly everyone, and with states nearing bankruptcy it’s no surprise that a lot of science is getting curtailed. But SETI represents something noble and good about science, something we do both because of its deep philosophical ramifications and also simply for the joy of finding things out. So it hurts a little bit more to hear this.

SETI astronomer Seth Shostak gives the rundown on the situation. And there’s a little bit of salt in the wound because SETI was just ramping up to start investigating the exoplanets recently found by the Kepler mission as well. For the first time in human history we’re finding systems outside our own where habitable planets may exist. I think it’s worth giving them a listen.

But that won’t happen for a while at least. The array costs about $2.5 million per year to run, and that money simply isn’t coming in; there are several funding agencies — including the eponymous Paul Allen — but as the SETI press release puts it:

In an April 22, 2011 email (PDF) to Allen Telescope Array stakeholder level donors, SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson described in detail the recent decision by U.C. Berkeley, our partner in the Array, to reduce operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (and thus the Allen Telescope Array) to a hibernation state effective this month. NSF University Radio Observatory funding to Berkeley for HCRO operations has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former level and, concurrently, growing State of California budget shortfalls have severely reduced the amount of state funds available for support of the HCRO site.

Knowing my readers, some of you will want to help. SETI has a donation page. I talked with Seth yesterday and he told me "every little bit helps".

And hey, if you happen to know a millionaire who happens to be able to look a little bit beyond the next day or two of market fluctuations, you know where to send them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (45)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    …. a desperate lack of funds has forced them [the SETI team] to mothball their Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio dishes in northern California. That sucks. … SETI represents something noble and good about science, something we do both because of its deep philosophical ramifications and also simply for the joy of finding things out. So it hurts a little bit more to hear this.

    Awful news. Durnnit! :-(

    The budget crisis has hit nearly everyone, and with states nearing bankruptcy it’s no surprise that a lot of science is getting curtailed. But

    Actually, science in general seems to me to be the best investment worth making that could perhaps help us find our way out of our economic woes. It should be the last thing we curtail spending on – not one of the first. :-(

    Okay SETI is pure science and maybe it is highly unlikely that First Contact will solve the debt crisis and fix the economy directly – but then, we never know. What if among the first signals is a simple, easy to manufacture nuclear fusion device that can quickly effectively replace all our fossil fuel sources or suchlike? Granted we can’t bet on that but if we’re not looking and it turns out such a beneficial signal *is* out there, well you just never know! ;-)

  2. Zucchi

    It especially hurts that the whole “budget crisis” is a giant scam. Just the richest 1% of the country control enough wealth to balance the budget, repair the nation’s infrastructure, achieve universal health care, and fund all the science we should be doing. $2.5 million a year? There are plutocratic douchebags who spend that much on birthday parties.

  3. I’ve been dissapointed by some of the comments across the web saying “good riddance” or “waste of time anyway”… just look at some of the posts on Reddit where sincere people asked for donations to keep a great project alive and people were upvoted for saying it was “junk science” to begin with. I think some people take “junk science” too far :( SETI really brough “grid” to computing with their infamous screen saver and i’m sure they have developed other technologies that have helped other projects as well. Shame to see it go into hybernation mode

  4. Sam H

    Sad to see such a nice project being put down, but then again things like this are kind of inevitable. Science spending does deliver great things, but it cannot guarantee this delivery compared to things such as propping up the markets or attempting to create jobs. As some of you may know I’ve given up on the US being #1 for various reasons (it’s apparently dangerous just to drink milk in your country, due to Monsanto), but for now it still is a big leader in science. The only hope for projects like this are corporations and private billionaires with faith in the potential of these endeavours. I personally think that SETI is a little-narrow sighted, but it’s certainly a valuable project. But contra Shostak, it’s very likely that it won’t be the first to find life – that’s reserved for some large infrared space telescope that can read the atmospheres of the Kepler planets and others from light-years away.

  5. Mat

    I’m considering donating, but i’m not sure what difference my small donation would make if the array is already mothballed, it’ll take a hell of a lot of $10-$100 donations to get to the $2.5M needed to run the array for the year.

    Is there an indicator anywhere that I can see how close to the $2.5M they are, similar to the kickstarter website?

  6. Tony

    I recently started re-reading Issac Asimov’s foundation series. It’s a really good read, particularly now. It is impossible not to read it and look at all the signs the empire was going to crumble and not draw parallels to ourselves today. One of the first signs was that scientific research became sidelined as a distraction from other more properly ‘imperial’ pursuits. Hmm….

    heh..maybe it’s time some of the best and brightest started collecting all our knowledge and hiding it on some remote island somewhere to prevent it being lost in the coming dark age? I honestly worry about that.

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Could corporate sponsorship save the SETI Allen array – has that idea been considered and is that possible or not allowed?

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 2. Zucchi : “… Just the richest 1% of the country control enough wealth to balance the budget, repair the nation’s infrastructure, achieve universal health care, and fund all the science we should be doing. $2.5 million a year? …”

    This link :

    http://www.alternet.org/economy/149918/9_pictures_that_expose_this_country's_obscene_division_of_wealth/?page=entire

    Graphically and effectively illustrates that very good point regarding the super-rich and the wealth disparity. You have a point there.

  9. ian

    we could use a Carl Sagan right about now…

  10. Sam H

    @ Ian: that could probably be said of any era…

  11. Messier Tidy Upper

    @9. ian : “we could use a Carl Sagan right about now…”

    Ask and ye shall recieve! ;-)

    Well on Youtube anyhow. See :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZt3Zg2y8ks &

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ztl8CG3Sys &

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNOM7WOGGUw

    which is still my alltime favourite Youtube videoclip bar none.

  12. tmac57

    I am already a supporter,and I will make an additional donation due to this sad news. And to Mat’s question about whether or not small donations will make a difference,yes they will,because there are larger donors out there who will also pitch in.Every dollar matters.Also, SETI’s ‘Are We Alone?’ podcast is worth a donation all by itself,regardless of all the other things that SETI does.(Phil regularly contributes to the podcast,for those who didn’t know)

  13. SLC

    Not to throw cold water on the project but the late biologist Ernst Mayr opined that the overwhelming likelihood is that intelligent life in the universe is rare and the nearest planet with such life is probably so far away that any signals coming from there have been attenuated to the point of not being detectable.

  14. Diederick

    From the FAQ about this on the SETI@home site:


    Q. Will this be the end of the SETI Institute?
    A. Not by a long shot. Remember the start of the SETI Institute what caused by the cancellation of all federal SETI funding. If the ATA closes down, I think the SETI Institute will just concentrate on making instrumentation that they can use on other telescopes.

    http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/forum_thread.php?id=63888

    SETI@home apparently isn’t affected at all, so I guess my computer will continue calculating :-)

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @^ SLC : I suspect that’s correct – life may well be common but intelligent life exceedingly rare. The Fermi paradox and the prehistory of life on Earth – the sheer number of species and length of time before Humans emerge tends to indicate that to me.

    But then again, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence and we’ll only know if we conduct a thorough search.

  16. Claudio Perez de Celis

    Its going to be a though year in the US. Just last month I was hearing about the how federal founding was going to cut the budget of poson control centers from 29 millinon to 2 million. Fortunatedly it all ended up with just a 25% cut.

  17. Alex

    A bit OTT, Zucchi.

    The top 1% of earners do pay around 28% of all federal taxes (source Congressional Budget Office) so they have paid for quite a bit of science.

    Feel free to disagree but do try to play nicely.

  18. bb

    Then grid-computing is the only scientific achievement of SETI? That would be a poor result since SETI didn’t invent ist, they din’t even coin the term.

  19. Miko

    Look at it this way: if/when aliens are successful in contacting us, we can expect that they’re likely much more intelligent than we are. In that case, they would surely realize that devoting resources to listening for alien contact when you have no reason to suspect that intelligent aliens exist is a devastatingly stupid idea. As such, they would design their message in such a way that it could be received without the need for the receiving society to be explicitly listening for it. So, the only real risk is that we’ll miss the messages from the stupid aliens, and they probably encoded their message so poorly that we wouldn’t realize that it was intended as a message even if we were listening for it.

  20. pheldespat

    I used the SETI@home client long time ago, but I came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time/CPU/power and that my computer could be used for far more useful things. That’s why I started collaborating with folding@home and some BOINC programs. In my extremely humble opinion, SETI is based on too many assumptions. Yes, sure, if we don’t listen we’ll never know if they’re calling. But what after 100 years of silence? After 200? After 500? It can be argued that we are not listening attentively enough, that we are listening on the wrong channels, that we have to keep listening… 600, 700, 800… 1000 years: “the universe is huge; there must be someone up there.” an so on per secula seculorum.

    And yes, I know that the Allen array is not used only for SETI, and I would prefer that I wouldn’t be used for SETI at all. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from ET, it’s just that this search doesn’t make sense to me. If it makes sense to you, guys, that’s fine.

    “Where is everybody?” — Enrico Fermi

  21. katwagner

    A couple things: every time some whackadoo, say a congress person, does something stupid, a tiny voice in my head says, hmmm I wonder how they do this on other planets?

    And – we already have non human, intelligent life on this planet. Whales, dolphins. And look how we treat them. Just because they don’t have opposable thumbs so they can change their environment doesn’t make them any less smart. I bet they communicate way better with their own kind then we do with ours. So would we know intelligent life somewhere else? Would we?

  22. Jeff

    As Carl Sagan says, SETI costs less than operating one attack helicopter. But I’ve taught and experienced a lot, and I am a stark realist about this world. We must not ever assume the regressive forces will relent and be overtaken by the progressive forces in this world. I no longer just dream, I always am aware of this which punctuates my dreams every day. But I had to teach 30 years to come to this understanding.

  23. Jose

    $2.5 Million Dollars per year? isn’t that like ridiculously low as far as these things go? I mean I don’t have them lying around but still, the shuttle costs around a BILLION dollars each launch (we will do 3 this year) and there is no way 0.25% of that can be saved for this very important research?… I’m so disappointed!

  24. Makoto

    Sad news, not just for SETI, but for science / education funding in the US in general. This isn’t an isolated incident.

  25. Mike Mullen

    $2.5 million is a lot of money, on the other hand the applications for tickets for the London 2012 Olympics just closed. Prices ranged from as low as £20($30 dollars) to £2,012($3000), the average being £50($75). They had applications for 20 MILLION tickets, so I think there’s plenty of cash out there, you just need to find a persuasive way to get people to part with it.

  26. Milan Moravec

    University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau always knows where to find funds. leadership (The author who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture & the way senior management work)

    Cal. Chancellor’s gross over spending, inept decisions: recruits (using California tax $) out of state $50,000 tuition students that displace qualified Californians; spends $7,000,000 for consultants to do his & many vice chancellors jobs (prominent East Coast university accomplishing same at 0 cost); pays ex Michigan governor $300,000 for lectures; Latino enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010; tuition to Return on Investment (ROI) drops below top 10; NCAA places basketball program on probation.

    Chancellor Birgeneau’s ($500,000 salary) fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar asked for, & the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.

    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies & then crafting a plan to fix them. Able oversight by the UC Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on inefficiencies and on what steps he was taking to solve them during his 8 year reign. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the timid regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, & the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.

    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste & inefficiencies during his 8 year reign. Faculty & staff raised issues with Birgeneau & Breslauer ($400,000 salary), but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau engaged some expensive ($7,000,000) consultants to tell him & the Provost what they should have known as leaders or been able to find out from the bright, engaged people. (Prominent east-coast University accomplishing same at 0 costs)

    Cal. and Californians have been badly damaged by Chancellor Birgeneau. Good people are loosing their jobs. Cal’s leadership is either incompetent or culpable. Merely cutting out inefficiencies does not have the effect desired. But you never want a crisis to go to waste.

    Increasing Cal’s budget is not enough; we believe the best course of action for University of California is to honorably retire Cal Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary)

  27. Go to iTunes and download a few of their Are We Alone? podcasts: far from being a narrow, single-topic programme, it’s one of the widest-ranging, most consistently interesting and accessible science podcasts going. Perhaps partly to put distance between themselves and UFO-conspiracy types they feature a regular ‘Skeptic Check’ issue, which frequently features some guy called Phil Plait who sounds like he knows a thing or two.

    Worth a contribution just for the podcast!

  28. Kaleberg

    It’s probably just as well. If the aliens have a DMCA, they might be quite pissed at our organized effort to crack their DRM. Given the reputation of the RIAA, we really don’t want to deal with aliens like that.

  29. Mike Saunders

    Jose, research money never works like that… $2.5 Million is actually a huge amount of money for research. My group of 2 people work on about $300,000 a year, output a lot (A LOT) of work and we still have to scrape until our hands bleed for that money. (How do you think I feel about $2 million being spent on other projects?) The group next to us took 8 years to get together $3 million to build a lab that they could do work in…

    And this is research that has direct consumer application, must be hard for pure science types.

  30. jennyxyzzy

    @pheldespat

    SETI is not some experiment that you can run once and get a conclusive answer for. If we have listened for 500 years without hearing anything, there is nothing that says that year 501 won’t be the year that another civilisation starts broadcasting. If you want to hear them calling, you have to keep listening.

    $2.5million is such a ridiculously low figure that it is really hard to justify not spending it – especially when the money spent will in part be used for more traditional research (the Allen Telescope wasn’t just going to be running SETI jobs). And even the money spent on pure SETI research is collecting data that can be potentially used for other research in the future.

    Still at the end of the day, I admit that my passion for SETI stems from a more emotional place. I just can’t believe that we are unique in the universe. The history of science is the history of removing humanity from a central place in the universe. It’s not unreasonable to expect SETI to continue this story by showing that we aren’t the only intelligent life out there…

  31. Diederick

    @pheldespat: if nothing else, seti@home got my computer into protein folding and malaria research ;-)

  32. Patrick

    If Paul Allen can’t completely support the Allen Telescope Array right now, maybe Bill Gates can take up the slack and keep it running.

  33. Chris T

    The problem with saying $2.5 million is not much money, is that there are literally an unlimited number of potential projects that could make the same claim. If we (as a species) had an unlimited amount of resources, it wouldn’t matter. We don’t, so we have to pick and choose what we spend our resources on.

    Given SETI’s probable scientific ROI, can we justify funding it verus other projects? Are there possibly more effective routes for finding an alien civilization that would also have a high ROI even in failure?

  34. Winston Smith

    Just the richest 1% of the country control enough wealth to balance the budget, repair the nation’s infrastructure, achieve universal health care, and fund all the science we should be doing.

    OK, Bill Gates is worth about $50 billion. We confiscate all of it (assuming it’s even possible as a small fraction it is probably actually liquid). That closes the budgets for a couple states. You hit the other billionaires… oops, you run out of billionaires real fast.

    And the what do you do next year? Because by just throwing more money at the sociopaths in office, you’re just going to encourage them, all the while they laugh at the innumerate ignoramuses like you.

    It especially hurts that the whole “budget crisis” is a giant scam.

    Well, it’s scam to the extent that the budgets could be fixed if the politicians stopped spending like drunken sailors, and stopped being corrupt . Fat chance of that, especially when they have citizen apologists like you.

    Our new fossil of a governor here in California ran on a responsibility and belt tightening platform. His first major act? Lucrative, expensive and eventually unsustainable contracts for the prison employees union the likes of which are never seen anywhere else- the union that gave millions of dollars to Gov. Brown’s campaign. Payoff, pure and simple.

    But, no, we’ll just go and confiscate money from the sector of the economy that actually generates jobs and growth so we can allow these slimeball politicians to keep playing their games. Yeah, keep pretending there’s nothing rotten at the heart of government. Keep enabling the filth in power. that’s working *so* well at the moment.

    There are plutocratic douchebags who spend that much on birthday parties.

    Why do you care? Those parties are business and income for a lot of people.

    But, oh noes, they don’t fit into *your* precious world view of what is proper. Feh… I long for the day when the “useful idiots” finally drop out of society and the rest of us can start to hold the political classes accountable and take some of the power back.

  35. Brian Too

    Again, I’m going to play the contrarian. Times are tough. You can look at 100+ projects in isolation and justify them each by saying “not a lot of money. Save the Project!”. That’s missing the point.

    The point is, cumulatively cutting back on all projects (not just science projects) can save a lot of money. When times are tough you triage your projects and cut the weakest ones.

    Look, I was a big SETI fan, but it’s been running for 10+ years and really, it hasn’t found anything. If there were an easy target out there to identify, we’d have seen it by now. Argue if you wish but the potentially “easy” win days are gone in SETI.

    Now what happens if we suspend this program for oh, say 5 years? Does this mean we can never restart a successor project? Of course not. Does this mean we lost our alien signal in that 5 year dark period? Highly unlikely. Does computing power continue to scale exponentially as per Moore’s Law? Yes it does.

    If the economy was fine I’d say keep SETI running. However the economy in the U.S. is not fine and SETI has not been terribly productive. And yes, I’m well aware that a negative result in science is considered useful.

  36. Chris T

    And yes, I’m well aware that a negative result in science is considered useful.

    This is a major problem I have with SETI. A null result is useless because there are virtually limitless possible reasons for it. So, not only is the probability of success low, but continued failure provides nothing useful scientifically (other than that aliens are not bombarding us with messages in the frequencies we’re looking at).

  37. Messier Tidy Upper

    @21. katwagner :

    And – we already have non human, intelligent life on this planet. Whales, dolphins. And look how we treat them.

    I think you can add Chimps-bonobos, Orang-utans, Gorillas, Elephants and Octopi (Octopuses?) to that list as well. Actually dogs, cats and pigs have intelligence too – although perhaps to a lesser degree as do parrots and lots of other creatures. Intelligence is a realtive quality rather than a zero-sum one.

    Just because they don’t have opposable thumbs so they can change their environment doesn’t make them any less smart. I bet they communicate way better with their own kind then we do with ours. So would we know intelligent life somewhere else? Would we?

    Hmm .. not sure, good point.

    I guess the point of SETI is not just finding an sentient intelligence but one that’s close enough to our level of technology and communication methodology to be able and willing to communicate with us. It might possibly explain part of the Fermi paradox if many sentient species do NOT use the methods we expect to communicate or are at such an advanced level we wouldn’t recognise them as intelligent. Another factor mentioned in some SF novels* I’ve read is how they experience time – if they are living their lives at a much faster or slower pace than us we may miss their signals perhaps?

    ——–

    * Eg. the fast-paced Cheela on neutron star surface in a Robert L. Forward or Larry Niven authored series & some slow rock-like type creatures by ..??? I forget who now. Maybe Anne McCaffrey, think ’twas a female author?

  38. Messier Tidy Upper

    NB. Bonobos a.k.a. Pygmy Chimpanzees, not sure if a separate species of their own or just a variety (sub-species?) of chimp. Siamang apes look very similiar to – had me confused at the zoo the other day sure I was looking at a chimp when I wasn’t. Chimps have even flown rockets as have dogs! ;-)

    Aha : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo says they’re a species of their own.

    For Cheela see : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheela turns out it was indeed by Robert L. Forward although Larry Niven has a written on nuetron stars too :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutron_Star_(short_story)

    Hence the confusion.

    Anyone know who wrote the slow-timespan sentience aliens novel I vaguely recall reading?

  39. Homo sapiens is a defective, self-destructing virus.

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