The Sciences

E.T. call waiting

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitApr 28, 2011 11:02 AM


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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.

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