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SETI Institute to shut down alien-seeking radio dishes.
April 26, 2011 8:32 PM   Subscribe

SETI Institute to shut down alien-seeking radio dishes. Lacking the money to pay its operating expenses, Mountain View's SETI Institute has pulled the plug on the renowned Allen Telescope Array, a field of radio dishes that scan the skies for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. The timing couldn't be worse, say SETI scientists. After millenniums of musings, this spring astronomers announced that 1,235 new possible planets had been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite.
posted by Leisure_Muffin (146 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Shifting the emphasis of our space program's technology to terraforming research has more potential benefits for greening Earth, and most of our information so far indicates that potential alien life is not in any rush to communicate with us. If we keep sending probes out to collect samples and gather data, our potential neighbors will notice. as much as I heart Sagan and SETI, decisions have to be made.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 8:36 PM on April 26, 2011


There is a very angry 13 year old Whelk who just got back from a speech he downright hitchhiked too given by Jill Tarter at Princeton inside of me right now
posted by The Whelk at 8:37 PM on April 26, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yeah, $5 million will buy us a stack of terraforming research. You've almost got two-thirds of a think tank intern to write your media releases right there.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:37 PM on April 26, 2011 [14 favorites]



.
posted by Mngo at 8:37 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


And just as we were about to receive a transmission saying "DON'T CANCEL MILTON BERLE STOP PHIL SILVERS SUCKS SO HARD STOP."
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:38 PM on April 26, 2011 [17 favorites]


Well, all the other life-forms out there probably couldn't sustain funding for their space programs either. That's why we haven't had any visitors.
posted by ofthestrait at 8:40 PM on April 26, 2011 [44 favorites]


all of that money needed to go to corporate tax breaks....much more important!
posted by tomswift at 8:41 PM on April 26, 2011 [17 favorites]


To be honest, Fermi's paradox is hard to get around. There are two possible answers, one good, the other bad.

Bad: There's no-one there. Tech-advanced life is rare to the point where it may as well be unique.

Good: You hairless primates use the =electromagnetic spectrum= to communicate across distances? Why not set up an interstellar semaphore flag system while you're at it! Get back to us once you've evolved enough to use foo-communications.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:41 PM on April 26, 2011 [12 favorites]


Can I keep the screensaver?
posted by 2ghouls at 8:42 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, to be clear, SETI derived its funding from UC Berkeley so this is another consequence of our state's utter inability to govern itself. You're all welcome.
posted by rkent at 8:43 PM on April 26, 2011 [12 favorites]


Cooper. Cooper. Cooper.
posted by milarepa at 8:43 PM on April 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


Back when their first screensaver came out donating CPU cycles to the project, I went from machine to machine putting this on a couple of PC labs that I managed (no money for automating software rollouts back then.) There were rankings for the most cycles contributed, and a sense that you were doing something vaguely nice for Science, even if nothing came of it. And the team that created the data analysis screensaver made efforts to keep you sort-of informed about how much work was being done by your machines, and why it mattered to them. Good people; it's sad to hear this.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:47 PM on April 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


CQ, this is W9GFO. CQ, this is W9GFO here. Come back?
CQ, this is W9GFO. CQ, this is W9GFO here. Come back?

posted by clavdivs at 8:48 PM on April 26, 2011 [23 favorites]


It seems like a waste of money to me. Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055? I'm sure this project would be a lot cheaper in 2055.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:49 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are two possible answers, one good, the other bad.

Well, a third answer is that they aren't really interested in exploring or communicating with other worlds. When it gets down to it, we're not either (we spend almost no money on it). And if this is a common place to end up, no species ever gets to the point where they're doing anything obvious enough for other species to pick up on it across the vast distances we're talking about.

I mean, the Fermi stuff all assumes it's natural to expand / explore / colonize beyond your planet. So far, humanity (our only reference point) hasn't been particularly interested (sure a lot of us like to read fiction about it, but in terms of dollars spent space is less important to us than most things).
posted by wildcrdj at 8:53 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, a third answer is that they aren't really interested in exploring or communicating with other worlds.

The whole "a century from now the survivors all live in World of Warcraft" hypothesis is starting to feel more realistic than I want it to.
posted by brennen at 8:56 PM on April 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


For $5 million, they could just not make the next Paul Reiser show and a few others, put that money into SETI, and then make a reality TV show about it. I'd watch.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 8:56 PM on April 26, 2011 [9 favorites]


It seems like a waste of money to me. Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055? I'm sure this project would be a lot cheaper in 2055.

Well, I'd like to be alive when it happens.
posted by josher71 at 8:57 PM on April 26, 2011 [24 favorites]


One of the complaints with SETI was that based on a comparison to humans, aliens would only be broadcasting for a limited amount of time-- maybe 100 to 200 years-- before they linked the entire world in an Internet-style structure.

But the real problem seems to be that we only had the capital and spare resources to listen for a limited time-- only 50 years.

Even adding generous extensions to the tune of thousands of years to both those numbers, with those kind of time limits there was really no hope of a match whatsoever.
posted by shii at 8:57 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shifting the emphasis of our space program's technology

I thought SETI was more related to astronomy than the space program...
posted by hippybear at 8:58 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


This isn't as bad as it sounds, right? The Allen array was only a few years old, and not the only one of its kind. What about Arecibo, or the Very Large Array? It's not like the search for alien life has been totally abandoned here.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:00 PM on April 26, 2011


I second esprit de l'escalier. There are far more immediate tasks to be done, both on Earth and in Space. A moon/Mars colony would be far more rewarding, and more importantly, less reliant on unknowable probabilities.
posted by lemuring at 9:00 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


It seems like a waste of money to me. Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055?

I don't understand this question. Wouldn't you rather make first contact now rather than in 50 years? Why ever do anything if that's your attitude?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:01 PM on April 26, 2011 [7 favorites]


trustno1
posted by special-k at 9:01 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


SETI isn't about making contact. A society that can't spare a percent of a percent of a percent of its GDP on imagination and wonder is in a sorry state indeed.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 9:04 PM on April 26, 2011 [34 favorites]


The VLA isn't used to listening for alien radio signals. It's primarily used for making actual astronomical observations. That it was used in that movie was mostly because it happens to be very photogenic.
posted by hippybear at 9:04 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


It seems like a waste of money to me. Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055? I'm sure this project would be a lot cheaper in 2055.


By that logic we should put off all pure scientific exploration for fifty years.

I also wouldn't assume it'd be cheaper in the future--there's a good chance their costs are dominated by labor and infrastructure upkeep rather than computers.
posted by toutvabien at 9:13 PM on April 26, 2011


I'm terribly bummed out by this, but I think we all need to realize that it was the longest of long shots, the hail mary-est of hail marys, the throwing of a dart against a board the size of the solar system. There are just so many numerous ways in which the prospect of detecting a signal from sentient life can go wrong.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:15 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Back in 2007, my company was looking for a senior engineer to lead a graphics chip design project. One guy, we'll call him Jeff, seemed ideal for the project. But we were a very small chip startup and the proposed design was very different from anything else on the market. Jeff was skeptical. He wanted proof the project was feasible before he would join.

We prepared some NDAs, then proceeded to walk Jeff through every aspect of our (highly secret) design. We spent a couple days showing him everything we were working on. Algorithms, complexity analysis, chip architecture, everything. Jeff was impressed and it seemed he was going to join us.

But Jeff didn't join our company. He gave us a call, said "No", and just dropped off. We tried to open negotiations on the salary and stock, but he was completely uninterested. Just "sorry, I can't".

We were pissed. We figure he had taken our designs and gone back to his previous employer, a very large competitor. We couldn't see any other reason for him to just shut down after previously showing so much enthusiasm.


We didn't learn what really happened until about a month later. Just after we had finished our interviews, Jeff was diagnosed with an advanced cancer. He turned down our job offer because he had less than a year to live. Instead, he chose to spend his last months in Puerto Rico, working on signal processing hardware he designed for SETI. Jeff passed away in 2008.
posted by ryanrs at 9:16 PM on April 26, 2011 [149 favorites]


01110011 01101001 01100111 01101000
posted by sourwookie at 9:28 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's still massive world wide interest in SETI despite the complete failure to come up with anything over the years. This is more a failure to turn that interest into long term, sustainable fund raising than anything else. There's no reason why this should be publicly supported, but equally no reason why the public couldn't pay for it if they were motivated and encouraged to do so. The Greater Boston Food Bank, to take one random example, raises ten times this amount of money every year from public donations and other sources with no Government input at all.
posted by joannemullen at 9:30 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


travesty. in favor of spending money on what would be the most important discovery of human history, we're still spending it on wars. truly speaks to the state of life on earth.
posted by jardinier at 9:31 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah... $5million over 2 years... really isn't that much money compared to a lot of other things. It's more than my household budget, obviously, but it's a lot less than most organizations budgets even on an annual basis.
posted by hippybear at 9:32 PM on April 26, 2011


We didn't learn what really happened until about a month later. Just after we had finished our interviews, Jeff was diagnosed with an advanced cancer. He turned down our job offer because he had less than a year to live. Instead, he chose to spend his last months in Puerto Rico, working on signal processing hardware he designed for SETI. Jeff passed away in 2008.
posted by ryanrs at 12:16 AM on April 27


If this were a movie Jeff's equipment would find ET, here's hoping!
posted by darkmatter at 9:32 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


We lost this race when we Godwinned it from the start. I like to imagine that is why we have been ignored thus far. I cannot imagine the History channel is helping matters, here.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:36 PM on April 26, 2011


Yes, I know we are not sending cable transmissions into space.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:36 PM on April 26, 2011


I got caught in an interview by some local new station about SETI's closing. I'm afraid I came off as an alien lover steeped a bit too much in Stargate SG-1's outlook on obtaining alien technology by contacting benevolent civilizations and negotiating some kind of trade with them. Were I a bit more level headed, I would've said something more like "Hearing from any extraterrestrial civilization, even if the beings that created the communications are millions of years dead, can teach us about ourselves even if that lesson is simply how we react to the news that we are not alone."
posted by Mister Cheese at 9:40 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


After millenniums of musings, this spring astronomers announced that 1,235 new possible planets had been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite.

Uh, this is a bit of a weird statement. We have been finding Exoplanets for years. It isn't like there were zero and then suddenly 1200 were discovered in one go.
posted by delmoi at 9:41 PM on April 26, 2011


True, but we've only had Kepler in orbit for a couple of years, and before that we had discovered fewer than 400 exoplanets, and many of them were gas giants and such. They've only analyzed the data from the 6 months of Kepler observations (Mar - Sept 2009) and already they've discovered over 1200 more.

Having the right instruments truly makes a difference with this kind of thing, and we've truly just opened the window for the first time on these observations.
posted by hippybear at 9:47 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Has anybody associated with the SETI project ever been anything less than awesome? Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak . . . I've learned so much from all of them.

And they are (or were) the first to tell you SETI is a longshot. But how do we even know that? All we know is that there are other planets out there. Maybe there are a gazillion other Earths. Maybe we're alone. Maybe it's likely we'll detect a signal next week. Or maybe in the next 10,000 years. Or never. We don't know shit.

The bottom line is that we have no idea what the odds are. Speculation is pointless. All we can do is look and listen, or not. Why not?

It's worth $X a year to me to fund SETI. If it buys me a confirmed alien signal in my lifetime, I'll consider it a huge return on investment.
posted by Camofrog at 9:49 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I just...

5 Million Really? God people buy houses for more then that. 2 Fast 2 Furious cost more than twice that to make and didn't make it back it back in profit. Is it really so bad to throw some money to a program with great PR, public support, minimal staff, low costs and the Victory Condition of being the Greatest Thing Ever?
posted by The Whelk at 9:55 PM on April 26, 2011 [17 favorites]


I'm just really really really angry about this and I can't given figure out or articulate why.

It feels like giving up.
posted by The Whelk at 9:56 PM on April 26, 2011 [8 favorites]


.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:59 PM on April 26, 2011


I think this is a crafty ruse. Shutting down the operation will motivate rich nerds around the world to flood the institute with donations, giving SETI enough money not only to operate the dishes but also to build the Machine. Then we find god in pi and the nerds will wish they kept their money to themselves.
posted by brain_drain at 10:03 PM on April 26, 2011


"I think this is a crafty ruse. Shutting down the operation will motivate rich nerds around the world to flood the institute with donations, giving SETI enough money not only to operate the dishes but also to build the Machine. Then we find god in pi and the nerds will wish they kept their money to themselves." -brain_drain


God in pie? mmmm.
posted by Leisure_Muffin at 10:05 PM on April 26, 2011


If humanity is any indication of how first contact goes (and I accept that doesn't necessarily follow), then were we to actually make contact with an alien race, they'd probably be far, far beyond us in technology and simply enslave us to work in their underground sugar mines. I suspect that's more likely than some kind of T'Plana Hath encounter, sadly.

I hate being cynical, but I'm a student of human nature, y'all.
posted by darkstar at 10:06 PM on April 26, 2011


Of course, if they're significantly more advanced than us, they probably have mandroids to do their sugar mining. That would mean they'd probably just use us as sex slaves and for generating LOLcats.

Hmm...the pilot for the next series in the Star Trek franchise is taking shape...
posted by darkstar at 10:11 PM on April 26, 2011


I have never been sold on SETI, per se, but this does seem to be a symptom of a larger trend to take money away from space research. We are winding down manned space flight with no real plan to replace the shuttles and now we are losing something that has at least served as a symbol of our desire to reach beyond our claustrophobic atmosphere. It is sad when we can afford 100x times their budget each day on military adventures, but science gets the shaft.
posted by epsilon at 10:12 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


It seems like a waste of money to me. Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055? I'm sure this project would be a lot cheaper in 2055.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:49 PM on April 26 [+] [!]


And so it was. This was the moment that we entered the dark ages again.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:13 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


By that logic we should put off all pure scientific exploration for fifty years.

No, I don't think that analogous. I love SETI, but I'm also sympathetic to the 2055 post - I feel that scientific exploration expands our foundations of knowledge (and in turn, practical know-how, and in turn) in ways that detecting the existence of another civilization doesn't.
I think detecting a civilisation would be mind-blowing, and culture-shaping, but not quality-of-life improving, and therefore, it's not obvious to me that sooner has concrete advantages, especially when we're talking 60 years about a project that might take 1000 years.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:20 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hope this doesn't mean Seth and Molly's always entertaining and informative podcast will end.

And I hope some trillionnaire will step up and take up the slack.
posted by kevinsp8 at 10:20 PM on April 26, 2011


As a child I looked to the skies desperate, absolutely desperate for some alien life form to show up. I have very clear memories of it happening when I was eight. A ship just over my next-door neighbor's backyard. It was late at night and I was probably in some half-awake/half-dreaming state, but I remember it clearly, walking downstairs and looking outside the bay windows and seeing that flashing ship right before my eyes, which of course was gone by the time I'd woken up the rest of my family to take a look at it.

I spent the next two years wanting it to come back.

Meanwhile, people see the Virgin Mary in a potato, and it's about as reliable as my experience, but here's the thing.

There's some, albeit very small, chance that we can find other intelligent life out there. And that is the sort of thing which would not only be the biggest discovery in human history, were it to happen, but the sort of thing which keeps hope alive.

But in reality we went to the moon for three years, long before I was born, and never went back. Instead of slaking our thirst for the cosmos we have thrown all of our ships in with the potato-virgin-mary crowd. And there's nothing to be gained there. There's no hope. No science. No wonder.

We are cutting out everything that matters, everything that makes this world a little bit more habitable, and a little bit more wonderful, all in effort to keep cutting the taxes of the richest citizens a tiny little bit more.

Basically, I can't say "fuck you" to republicans hard enough.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:22 PM on April 26, 2011 [40 favorites]


This was the moment that we entered the dark ages again.

No, people are still striving for a colony on Mars. Money is fungible. If you view this as SETI cancelled to help fund war, then yeah, it's bleak. If you view this as SETI cancelled to help fund [something even more awesome], then it's not.

Musk is aiming for people on Mars within 20 years. WITHIN 20 YEARS!! The dream is not dead. It WILL rise again.

And maybe I'm confusing my movies with reality, but isn't there a movement by enthusiasts to link up home-dishes into an array?
posted by -harlequin- at 10:28 PM on April 26, 2011


.
posted by thecjm at 10:31 PM on April 26, 2011


isn't there a movement by enthusiasts to link up home-dishes into an array?

To link up... what? DirecTV and DISH mini-dishes? They're all kind of busy listening to their own signals already, and would have to be turned away from their targets, and I doubt they could receive any non-satellite signals.

Perhaps using now-dead C-Band dishes, or even with specially made dishes something could be made to work.
posted by hippybear at 10:40 PM on April 26, 2011


It feels like giving up.

It's just business. We've got a few tax breaks for the wealthy to pay for. Nothing personal.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:56 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055? I'm sure this project would be a lot cheaper in 2055.

See, that's hoping that FTL radio will be available in 2055. It probably won't.

These 50 years of signals will propagate throughout the universe for ... well, forever. But they'll only reach a given location for a period of 50 years (with some relativistic slack). Imagine if the signal stops just before that other civilization starts listening. Imagine if an extraterrestrial signal had stopped just before we began listening. Imagine how much luck two deaf archers would have shooting each other in the dark.

By making continuous observations and sending out a continuous signal, we raise the chance of making that contact ever so much. It seems like it's not a high priority, but as a civilization it seems worth spending $0.0007 apiece to maintain something like this.

I hope it can find a new source of funding. I hope it will be properly underwritten with a permanent endowment.

I am more pessimistic about the long-term survival of the human species today than I have been since the Cold War ended. I'm wondering if it all means anything at all. I wonder, if we never encounter another civilization, if it ever really did.
posted by dhartung at 10:58 PM on April 26, 2011


Like it or not, SETI is a pretty low priority to the extent that it gets public support, and for good reason. I'm not impressed with the argument that uses gee-whiz sentiment to justify publicly funding the project.

The thing that worries/irks me is not that we are funding less science (SETI was already largely privately funded). It's that we humans (Americans?) are so fond of justifying really inefficient scientific endeavors like SETI and manned space travel because it represents such romantic notions of how we would like to think about the universe, and where we fit in it all.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:59 PM on April 26, 2011


Be careful about wishing for private funding — the Scientologists will probably end up owning the thing.
posted by klangklangston at 11:01 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm sure much smarter people than me with huge education and experience have already thought a lot of this through... but why do we believe that our comparatively rather feeble television and radio signals will extend beyond the edge of our solar system and into interstellar space and not be swallowed into the general radiation of space?

I mean, I could possibly see some VERY advanced aliens maybe being able to pick it out, but it seems like our instruments are really good at picking up stellar radiation and the noise left over from the big bang... but how much can we really pick out if a planet out there has, say, even a million watt transmitter like I used to listen to out of Mexico when I was growing up?

Even Sagan had the alien signal we pick up being so loud against everything else it is impossible to miss.
posted by hippybear at 11:04 PM on April 26, 2011


Be careful about wishing for private funding — the Scientologists will probably end up owning the thing.

Dude, the Scientologists don't need it. Elron detected alien life back in the 1950's using two tin cans and a piece of string.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:07 PM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


Elron detected alien life back in the 1950's using two tin cans and a piece of string.

Now that is generous.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:07 PM on April 26, 2011


2N2222: SETI lost government funding not because it was unpopular, but because the premise of E.T. is ideologically controversial in a country where belief in the bible is near requisite for winning an elected office. The concept of SETI has in fact inspired millions of people, more than most scientific endeavors ever will.

Also, the second you start trying to sort out "inefficient" science from what you perceive as being more practical, you are throwing out research driven by basic curiosity, from which the most important discoveries emerge.
posted by toutvabien at 11:16 PM on April 26, 2011 [6 favorites]


Like it or not, SETI is a pretty low priority to the extent that it gets public support, and for good reason. I'm not impressed with the argument that uses gee-whiz sentiment to justify publicly funding the project.

We're using severely broken logic right now that states that the only reason we don't have more jobs is that the richest 1% won't give them to us unless they don't pay taxes, and those arguments are leaving the U.S. completely gutted, despite how unimpressed with them I am, personally.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:16 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, a third answer is that they aren't really interested in exploring or communicating with other worlds. When it gets down to it, we're not either (we spend almost no money on it).

If spending 500 trillion dollars was what it took for guaranteed communication with extraterrestrials, you can bet we'd find the funding for it. It's not that we're not interested!

It's that the odds of SETI actually working are low. Really low. Literally, incalculably low.
posted by nathan v at 11:30 PM on April 26, 2011


SETI lost government funding not because it was unpopular, but because the premise of E.T. is ideologically controversial in a country where belief in the bible is near requisite for winning an elected office. The concept of SETI has in fact inspired millions of people, more than most scientific endeavors ever will.

SETI was pretty weak science to begin with. That it rubs bible thumpers the wrong way doesn't add any more validity to the experiment. Its value as an inspirational tool would seem nice, since its value as a scientific endeavor is tenuous. But "inspirational tool" seems to me an even weaker justification than the already weak scientific justification.

Also, the second you start trying to sort out "inefficient" science from what you perceive as being more practical, you are throwing out research driven by basic curiosity, from which the most important discoveries emerge.

Decisions are made every day prioritizing which research will be continued and which will be shelved, potentially throwing out all kinds of important discoveries. This is nothing new.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:35 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even if the odds of picking up signals from extraterrestrial intelligences are probably very low, the point is that we'd be scanning the sky for radio waves. The odds of finding something interesting and scientifically important in all that are not very low at all.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:36 PM on April 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's not like that much in the way of resources or many were being spent on SETI. It's like a background task that's worth dropping the pennies on while we spend big dollars on other things. If something turns up, great. But if not, we've spent less on it in two years than one half of Scott Pilgrim's opening weekend take at the box office, and that wasn't even a successful film.
posted by hippybear at 11:41 PM on April 26, 2011


Drumlin won.
posted by bwg at 12:09 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The odds of finding something interesting and scientifically important in all that are not very low at all.

Interesting and scientifically important in what way? I was under the impression that SETI was relatively narrow in scope, and as such, any finding would fall under that "incalculably low" category of ET intelligence. In all the years SETI has been running, it's most notable for finding... not much. If the odds of finding something are not low, you'd think there would be more than has been observed.

If you're arguing that SETI will spawn neat spinoff technology, the way it's used to buttress arguments for manned space flight, I think the comparison may be flawed.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:18 AM on April 27, 2011


Hey Hippybear, I've wondered the same thing and googled up an answer from the usenet faq archive:

The short answer is
(1) Detection of broadband signals from Earth such as AM radio, FM
radio, and television picture and sound would be extremely
difficult even at a fraction of a light-year distant from the
Sun. For example, a TV picture having 5 MHz of bandwidth and 5
MWatts of power could not be detected beyond the solar system
even with a radio telescope with 100 times the sensitivity of the
305 meter diameter Arecibo telescope.

(2) Detection of narrowband signals is more resonable out to
thousands of light-years distance from the Sun depending on the
transmitter's transmitting power and the receiving antenna size.

(3) Instruments such as the Arecibo radio telescope could detect
narrowband signals originating thousands of light-years from the
Sun.

(4) A well-designed 12 ft diameter amateur radio telescope could
detect narrowband signals from 1 to 100 light-years distance
assuming the transmitting power of the transmitter is in the
terawatt range.

posted by gamera at 12:21 AM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


I second esprit de l'escalier. There are far more immediate tasks to be done, both on Earth and in Space. A moon/Mars colony would be far more rewarding, and more importantly, less reliant on unknowable probabilities.

I ROFL'd so hard that a little LOL came out. I agree that those are magnificent adventures, and I'm actually in favour of funding them. But those aren't even in the same universe in terms of cost. Even a moon mission (way cheaper than Mars, order of magnitude at least) is a big deal. SETI funding is the cost of a not-even super nice apartment in Manhattan, there are production cars that cost more than a year of SETI funding. Mars missions have costs measured in percentages of national GDP.
posted by atrazine at 12:34 AM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


"We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is." --Stanislaw Lem (Solaris)
posted by adso at 12:37 AM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Eventually, a group of extraterrestrials will send a ship to Earth, quite annoyed at having to do so.

"Hey mofos," they will say, "we've been trying to talk to you."

After the panic dies down–the hysteria, mass suicides, existential crises, and so on–after all that dies down humanity responds: "Wait, what? You've been trying to talk us?"

"Err, for quite some time. Weren't you listening?"

An embarrassed humanity looks down and shuffles its feet. "Well, the the thing is," comes the eventual reply, "we were listening for a bit. But we shut that project down a few hundred years ago. It was too expensive and we had a lot of wars going on that needed the money more. Wars against other countries, wars on drugs, wars on the poor and the middle class and gays. War on science. That kind of thing. So listening for extraterrestrials ended up kind of low on the ol' priority list and we never really got back to it. Granted it wasn't all that expensive in absolute terms, less than corporate kickbacks corrupt politicians garnered under the guise of campaign contributions, and certainly far less than salaries for the bankers that repeatedly ruined the economies of entire nations. Still, it was an expense."

The extraterrestrials give humanity a long look in the eye. "Even with all those priorities the signals should have been pretty hard to miss."

"Really?" humanity asks.

"Yeah, what did you think all those pulsars were for? Dumbasses."

...

They get in the ship and leave.
posted by 6550 at 1:08 AM on April 27, 2011 [8 favorites]


It seems like a waste of money to me. Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055?

I don't understand this question. Wouldn't you rather make first contact now rather than in 50 years? Why ever do anything if that's your attitude?


I think it makes sense to do some things sooner than others. It seems to me that having a moon base with SETI radio dishes would offer us much better signal reception than having it go through the atmosphere, for example. Also, our ability to algorithmically discover meaningful signals from the raw signal is going to be cheaper as computation gets cheaper. Finally, I don't know what the state of the SETI project is, but I wonder whether twenty more years of research into how we should undertake this project would pay off better than what is being done now.

Sometimes, waiting makes things so much cheaper that the money can be better use in other places.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 1:10 AM on April 27, 2011


Upcoming ubertelescope the Square Kilometre Array is not without SETI applications, and in the nearer future it has various pathfinder projects. There's talk of using LOFAR too and that's already operating. This is unfortunate news but it won't completely kill SETI.
posted by edd at 1:35 AM on April 27, 2011


This is just a symptom of the continued decline of respect given to general research projects.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:56 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


SETI is very popular, especially among nerds. SETI already has a distributed base of processors. This seems like the perfect candidate to just go whole hog and distribute the entire thing. Some RF nerds can design open hardware for receivers that anyone can build (along with test conditions to make sure you did it right too, obvs). CS nerds can write the software.

It would cost less, cover more area and never run out of money.
posted by DU at 2:56 AM on April 27, 2011


The SETI team really ought to put the project on Kickstarter. $5 million is chump change
posted by crayz at 3:22 AM on April 27, 2011 [8 favorites]


Their operating budget is around $5,000,000. It's about 3 cents per U.S. taxpayer.

I've already donated more than 3 cents. If you have 10 cents or a quarter, please give it to the search for intelligent life outside Earth. Please support scanning for intelligent life on other planets.

It's very likely that life is happening nearby in universe. NASA has identified 54 nearby habitable planets,

The recent discovery of numerous life-able planets within relatively short communicable distance suggests that cost-cutting isn't worth doing here.

Damn! There probably really is Life out there! You're standing on a planet, looking to the sky, and it's quite possible, likely even, that someone else is doing the same thing on some other planet.

That's worth knowing. I'll give my 3 cents.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:39 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


It pays to advertise. ... First news item many have seen for Years about SETI; and it concerns its closure. Blunderful.

.
posted by buzzman at 3:47 AM on April 27, 2011


They get in the ship and leave.

No, I'm pretty sure that's where they annihilate mankind so our plagues of willful ignorance and self-important stupidity don't spread across the entire galaxy.
posted by elizardbits at 3:59 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm just going to give them the money. Or you should.

We're not alone. It seems likely that life is happening all over the universe. Distant planets take a long time to talk to. But the conversation would be very interesting.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:12 AM on April 27, 2011


I am more pessimistic about the long-term survival of the human species today than I have been since the Cold War ended.

This is the real reason we find no signals from space. Civilisations spend a billion years getting from protozoa to technological society, and then the moment they hit the industrial age, in a blink of a cosmic eye they self destruct.

(Actually, I do not possess detailed historical knowledge of the rise and fall of myriad alien civilisations throughout the galaxy, but I can pretend on the internet. And you can't hold it against me because you're not really the 15 year-old girl that you play in chatrooms)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:38 AM on April 27, 2011


And you can't hold it against me because you're not really the 15 year-old girl that you play in chatrooms

Why does every discussion of aliens ground out that way?

Recent radio-telescope data changes an important factor in the Drake Equation. It's now more likely than not that there is communicable Life within an interactive envelope of 100 years (a relay back and forth).

I'll put up half the money. C'mon.... you know who you are. Do the rest!

Seriously. Do the other half. Half of 5.
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:48 AM on April 27, 2011


Screw all that science shit, anyway. Who needs it?
posted by SPUTNIK at 5:36 AM on April 27, 2011


Screw all that science shit, anyway. Who needs it?

If it's ok with you that the only way for you or your kids to get into space will be to sign on as an indentured servant for some Chinese company, then you've got a point.

Of course, if you actually want to out-compete the Chinese and ensure American dominance of the universe for all time, we need to rearrange some priorities.
posted by mikelieman at 5:44 AM on April 27, 2011


Shifting the emphasis of our space program's technology to terraforming research has more potential benefits for greening Earth, and most of our information so far indicates that potential alien life is not in any rush to communicate with us. If we keep sending probes out to collect samples and gather data, our potential neighbors will notice. as much as I heart Sagan and SETI, decisions have to be made.
There is no reason that we can't do both. The amount of money that we're talking about here is less than a penny per American per year. The military, in comparison, is thousands of dollars per American per year.
posted by Flunkie at 6:05 AM on April 27, 2011


It seems like a waste of money to me. Even if there are extraterrestrials, does it matter whether we contact them in 1995 or 2055? I'm sure this project would be a lot cheaper in 2055.
By 2055, federal funding for education will have been slashed so low, and air pollution will be so dense, that no one will know that there are other stars.
posted by Flunkie at 6:07 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's also worth pointing out that the ATA was doing lots of non-SETI science too, as well as being one of the SKA pathfinders developing the technology needed for doing some really significant astrophysics and cosmology research. It would be erroneous to think the closure has only had a negative impact upon the search for alien life.
posted by edd at 6:11 AM on April 27, 2011


I hate this. :(
posted by perilous at 6:44 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The SETI program had very little to do with science. It was primarily driven by Science Fiction.
posted by rocket88 at 6:53 AM on April 27, 2011


Five million dollars could buy the world a Bible as big as a bus!
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:53 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some RF nerds can design open hardware for receivers that anyone can build (along with test conditions to make sure you did it right too, obvs). CS nerds can write the software.

This is a neat idea at first glance, and I know at least one amateur radio astronomer who would immediately jump on board if it were feasible. Unfortunately, the problem is that an efficient survey for ET signals from our galaxy uses many small antennas in one location, rather than distantly separated. The Allen Telescope array geometry was arranged for a smart tradeoff between pinpoint sensitivity and field of view, which you wouldn't get by linking up backyard antennas across North America. To do a SETI radio survey efficiently really comes down to concentrating resources on a dedicated observatory.
posted by toutvabien at 7:03 AM on April 27, 2011


"Yeah, what did you think all those pulsars were for? Dumbasses."

Interestingly enough, when Jocelyn Bell and Anthony6 Hewish first detected a pulsar, they originally identified as LGM-1.

LGM stood for "Little Green Men" -- it was a nod to the fact that nobody at first guess thought you could have a natural object generate such a regular pulse rate -- esp. one with such a short pulse width.

Of course, it took about 10 seconds to think 'Hmm, it might be spinning, like just about every other object in the universe....' -- but it then became "Hmm, what could generate such a high energy focused beam?" Tomas Gold and Fred Holye quickly figured out the real answer-- the magnetic field around a neutron star.

Alas, the LGM designation faded. LGM-1 became CP1919, and is now PSR B1919+21 or PSR J1921+253, depending on which catalog you're looking at.
posted by eriko at 7:06 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Yeah, what did you think all those pulsars were for? Dumbasses."

Many Bothans died to bring you this information.
posted by dhartung at 7:07 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]




I'll come out as a SETI skeptic. The odds of remotely recognizable intelligent life in our cosmic neighborhood, in a compatible stage of evolutionary development, sending out a signal that just happens to be directed toward Earth is slim to none. In fact, evidence of Vulcans in our neighborhood and epoch is so improbable due to both deep space and deep time that I'd probably abandon my current flavor of atheism.

I'm not convinced that broad radio surveys are the best way to explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life. In a decade, we'll be able to narrow the field down to hundreds of candidate systems based on the configuration of planets. Then, we can more easily put ears on them just in case.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:21 AM on April 27, 2011


The odds of remotely recognizable intelligent life in our cosmic neighborhood, in a compatible stage of evolutionary development, sending out a signal that just happens to be directed toward Earth is slim to none.

Can you quantify this a little? At least Drake broke out the probabilities for us.
posted by DU at 8:40 AM on April 27, 2011


Someone really should have checked Senator Richard Bryan's basement for pods.
posted by zarq at 8:48 AM on April 27, 2011


"sending out a signal that just happens to be directed toward Earth is slim to none"
Some of our radio emissions go out fairly isotropically. Admittedly amongst the most powerful of those is military radar, so maybe there's the obvious self-limiter there on how long a civilisation is radio-loud if they're radio-loud because they're scared they're about to be blown up.
posted by edd at 8:49 AM on April 27, 2011


Couldn't we just reclassify aliens as "potential terrorists" and allocate some of the defense budget to keeping an eye on them?

I mean, if Congress has any questions, just show them that scene from Independence Day where the ships are blowing up landmarks and tell them it's a documentary. Hell, they'd probably give SETI billions if it meant that Will Smith could protect the White House from being destroyed.
posted by quin at 8:55 AM on April 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


At least Drake broke out the probabilities for us.

I realize this is like arguing atheism at a revival meeting, but I think several of the factors in the Drake equation are no more than wild-ass guesses flavored by Sci-Fi fandom. There's no evidence at all that both f(l), the fraction of planets that develop life and f(i) the fraction of those that develop intelligent life, are anything other than zero.
posted by rocket88 at 9:03 AM on April 27, 2011


I'm pretty sure the planet I'm on now constitutes evidence for them being anything but zero.
posted by edd at 9:09 AM on April 27, 2011


Does Drake include Earth? If so, fine, you can make that 1/(number of planets).
posted by rocket88 at 9:23 AM on April 27, 2011


Donate.
posted by HumanComplex at 9:31 AM on April 27, 2011


DU: The Drake equation is mostly speculative woo at this time with multiple terms that can't be quantified. To me, there seems to be a big hole in that it doesn't take into account geologic time, meaning that the L term (lifetime of a communicative civilization) artificially inflates the odds. (It also doesn't appear to have a term for the other end of stellar evolution.)

So, just for a back-of-napkin estimate of the deep time problem. Multicellular life has been around for approximately 10^9 years. The human ability to detect radio waves has been around for 10^2.

Even assuming some sort of magic woo that sets the other probabilities at 1, the odds of that happening in the same evolutionary time window as our own is about 10^-7 if you're a skeptic about long-term civilization survival like me. 10^-5 more optimistically. Again, that's a back-of-napkin estimate. The odds are slightly worse when you factor in differences in solar-system age.

rocket88 echos my criticisms of f(l) and f(i). We can't say that the probabilities are zero because, obviously, we live on a planet with intelligent life. But we can't can't reasonably extrapolate from the Earth to other solar systems to say that it's much higher than zero. The number of stars in the galaxy is on the order of 10^11, so it doesn't take much to push the odds to a once-a-galaxy phenomenon.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:32 AM on April 27, 2011


The Drake equation states for each human observer (x), x equals the best (or, more colloquially, the "fucking best"). This superlative state applies to each x, regardless of quantity.

It's a little confusing to wrap your head around at first, but he explains it pretty clearly at about 2:43 in this video.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:46 AM on April 27, 2011


I'm pretty pessimistic too, but I don't think you should call it 1/n_planets either, as most planets we've seen are from a sample that can't include Earth-like ones due to observational limitations.

I wouldn't be surprised if f(l) were relatively high, but I'm not sure we have much indication that f(i) is going to be remotely high enough to get anything intelligent anywhere in reach.
posted by edd at 9:47 AM on April 27, 2011


There is only one type of life form that we know of; one that involves an extremely large, extremely complex nucleic acid molecule. There are no other known forms. All life on earth is really just different variants of that one life form. And of those myriad variants, only one is intelligent (by Drake standards).
Even on the planet we know of, the factors seem to be exceedingly small.
posted by rocket88 at 10:12 AM on April 27, 2011


"There is only one type of life form that we know of; one that involves an extremely large, extremely complex nucleic acid molecule. There are no other known forms."
I don't know why you'd take that to be evidence of rarity over evidence that it only needs to get started once to make quite an impact on a planet.
posted by edd at 10:21 AM on April 27, 2011


Even though this article is spinning this as only a SETI thing, the real thing that is happening is that a really expensive, nearly unique piece of astronomical observation equipment that has a myriad of uses is being shut down because nobody wants to put up the relatively small amount of money it takes to run the thing.

We know so little about the universe at large, still, that pointing a radio telescope at the sky and just seeing what we find is certainly legitimate science; if some people want to analyze that data for signals that might have been made for extraterrestrial life, or get some time to point it in places where there's some long shot of having signals beamed to us, that really doesn't cut into the "real" astronomy all that much. Heck, as noted upthread, that sort of thing was how we discovered pulsars, which advanced our knowledge of how the universe worked.

The SETI part just gets a lot of play in the news because Hey! Aliens! People understand why that's cool and interesting a lot more than they understand why mapping galactic magnetic fields and interstellar plasma is. But make no mistake, even if you think SETI is a quixotic project, losing one of our very few radio observatories is a blow to astronomy in general.

I mean if you don't think non-applied science in general is not worthwhile, that's a different argument, but framing this only in terms of SETI is a disservice.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:31 AM on April 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


SETI haters are like the people who will mock you for buying a lottery ticket, because they assume you don't understand the odds. They'll say things like "the lottery is a tax on the stupid", which isn't really isn't anything other than evidence that you're in the presence of a very smug person.

Of course SETI (just like the lottery) doesn't make sense if all you consider is expected return on investment. You have to consider risk & utility as well. Basically, the utility of 2.5M annually is so low, in both absolute and relative terms*, and the reward so high, that I think it's stupid not to--even if the expected return is negative.

You may disagree on this point, but dismissing this as ignorance would be incorrect.

*$2.5M is enough to buy you about 2/3rds of the house across the street from me. It would buy you 1/17th of this Roy Lichtenstein painting. The amount Meg Whitman personally spent on her failed gubernatorial campaign would run SETI for more than 57 years.
posted by danny the boy at 10:36 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Huh, that's interesting. Zalzidrax is correct. The ATA was being used for a lot more than just SETI. There's a good overview of the installation and its capabilities and missions and achievements on its Wikipedia page.

$5 million over 2 years. It's, like, zero money in the grand scheme of things. So very very sad.
posted by hippybear at 10:43 AM on April 27, 2011


In order to find intelligence off-planet, we'd have to be able to prove the existence of significant intelligence ON planet. So far, nada mucho. Keep looking.
posted by dbiedny at 11:11 AM on April 27, 2011


The idea that ATA was being used for other than SETI purposes isn't very convincing either. This appears to be a case of overcapacity. The ATA was basically a pet project of a billionaire nerd, who funded most of the construction, with the input of Berkeley. That some use was made other than SETI is interesting, but beside the fact that it is still somewhat superfluous. It's kind of like as if some rich guy gave me the keys to his Lamborghini, and said, "All yours, as long as you have it tuned up every 5k mi, get it detailed once a week, and pay insurance premiums." Gee, thanks.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:31 AM on April 27, 2011


I'm not dismissing SETI as ignorant. I'm dismissing the whole-sky survey approach compared to one that's targeted to data on extrasolar planets. Of course, whole-sky surveys have value beyond just SETI.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:37 AM on April 27, 2011




There is no rush to detect alien life. On the off chance that we find a narrowbeam broadcast pointed at us, any conversation we would have with a nearby neighbor would literally take generations to occur.

And if you are in a big hurry to reap the technological benefits, go pick up a copy of Signal to Noise.

There are all kinds of ways to resolve the Fermi paradox and most of them are unappetizing, at best.
posted by adipocere at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The ATA was basically a pet project of a billionaire nerd, who funded most of the construction, with the input of Berkeley.

Why does that matter? Universities have large endowment projects happening all the time. A music building here, a theater there, an art museum over there... So Paul Allen opted to give a telescope instead of a natatorium. So what?
posted by hippybear at 12:03 PM on April 27, 2011


Does being gifted a rich guy's toy mean your obligated to play with it? Nobody's stopping Allen from gifting another $5 million. But the point is, this was largely his project, not ours. That you like it is fine and dandy, but it's hardly a priority for the nation. Gifting something the recipient can't really keep isn't much of a gift in the long run. Sometimes it can even be a yoke.

The problem with this project I see over and over is that the justifications are long on emotion, and short on science. When it comes to allocating research funds, it would be a good thing to do so on a basis other than how much it appeals to our hearts.
posted by 2N2222 at 12:24 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The ATA isn't short on science. SETI, perhaps. But creating better and stronger instruments to see out into the universe around us isn't short on science. Not at all.
posted by hippybear at 12:33 PM on April 27, 2011


I feel so bad for Jodie Foster right now.
posted by klausman at 12:43 PM on April 27, 2011


Don't feel bad for her... Nobody believed her story anyway.
posted by hippybear at 12:45 PM on April 27, 2011


The problem with this project I see over and over is that the justifications are long on emotion, and short on science. When it comes to allocating research funds, it would be a good thing to do so on a basis other than how much it appeals to our hearts.

SETI is a rational approach to answering a profound question about the universe. Smells like science to me.
posted by toutvabien at 12:50 PM on April 27, 2011


There were rankings for the most cycles contributed, and a sense that you were doing something vaguely nice for Science, even if nothing came of it. And the team that created the data analysis screensaver made efforts to keep you sort-of informed about how much work was being done by your machines, and why it mattered to them. Good people; it's sad to hear this.

Also, this project is wonderful evidence that basic science funding, even for "useless" research like SETI, can have a profound impact on human knowledge and industry.

SETI@Home was one of the first and most visible examples of crowdsourcing and distributed computing. It showed that it was possible to use the distributed power of normal people's computers to process large tasks work for very low cost. It led to actual money-making products like Amazon's Mechanical Turk and an entire class of virtual machine standards and protocols for distributed computing. In a way, it was a forerunner of Cloud computing. Regardless of how you feel about the Cloud, it's impact is substantial.

Distributed computing will still be used for academic research into protein folding and other tasks, even if we lose SETI, but it's a shame those in power can't look to our future anymore.
posted by formless at 12:50 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


The ATA isn't short on science.

Unfortunately, it kind of seems it is. It looks to be a facility in search of a mission. Well, it had a mission, but it was kind of a woo-ish one, and some brainstorming went on to really justify its usage. Maybe some folks at Berkeley thought it would be a cool way to piggyback some neat projects on a high profile, if dubious mission. But it kind of failed.

Some folks here seem to be arguing that this is some kind of grandiose bellwether about the state of science, or the state of America, or humanity. But that seems ridiculously overstated. I have little doubt ATA would be publicly funded today if there were a compelling reason to do so. The problem is that the compelling reason is missing, possibly because its whole existence is predicated on SETI, with all the baggage that carries. I also have little doubt that if/when there is a good reason to crank her up again, even on public funds, it will happen. It's not that scientists can't use ATA. It's that the scientists who might like to use ATA are having a hard time making a convincing argument for doing so.

SETI is a rational approach to answering a profound question about the universe. Smells like science to me.

I dunno. SETI is a quantifiable approach to answering a profound question about the universe. But the case that it's rational is weaker. Others have argued that its scope is way too wide, that we don't even know what to look for, that it's unfalsifiable. And if you're relying on Drake's equation to justify SETI, then you're getting pretty close to pseudoscience.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:25 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not that scientists can't use ATA. It's that the scientists who might like to use ATA are having a hard time making a convincing argument for doing so.

Well, it's also that the ATA was never actually completed, so much of its promise remains simply a promise rather than actually being the pretty amazing facility that it might have been.

But still. 5 million dollars. Over two years. THAT'S BASICALLY NO MONEY. It's startling that the funds can't be found somehow.

I'm with the people who have talked about Kickstarter. That kind of money could be raised nearly overnight given how many people are attached to SETI.

(And there's nothing wrong with being emotionally attached to a science project, even if it's something like SETI. If we could get more people emotionally attached to scientific exploration of all sorts, we'd likely have a better educated populace when it comes to what science actually is, and a lot more real research being done that isn't attached to a profit motive, which many times is the worst way to conduct science.)
posted by hippybear at 2:04 PM on April 27, 2011


Some folks here seem to be arguing that this is some kind of grandiose bellwether about the state of science, or the state of America, or humanity. But that seems ridiculously overstated.

I'd agree that what you said ("grandiose bellwether") is overstated, but perhaps not ridiculously so. I think that it's an indicator, one of many, that Western Civilization is dying. Considered in isolation, it might not mean much, but in context it means something.

You're right about the Drake equation; we have no idea how to assign some of those probabilities (f, for instance). We have no idea how abiogenesis occurs, but many, perhaps most, biologists believe it did, or at least assert that it's reasonable to base a research program on the assumption that it did. Many scientists also believe that f (the probability that life will develop on a planet that can support it) is fairly high, based on their belief that we aren't "special." Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren't. But I don't think it's unreasonable to base a research program on the assumption that we aren't, at least until more evidence is in.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:23 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't buy this as any sort of indicator on the State of Science in America.

I know a _lot_ of scientists (and I'm an engineer). Most of the science & engineer types I know think SETI is a waste of time and money. Sure, it's only $5M, but I know plenty of people working on worthier research whose labs could use $5M.
posted by wildcrdj at 3:17 PM on April 27, 2011


Well, between the space shuttle program pretty much dying off and this being killed off, what are we supposed to think?

On the one hand, what with the country in the giant state of befuckery it is currently in, a state that probably won't improve for a decade, with more and more people becoming homeless and unable to work and all that other shit, it's kind of hard to say that space-related science should still be a priority-- well, other than to keep space scientists employed and off the dole with the rest of us anyway.

On the other hand, if we stop now, who's to say it will ever start up again? I'm a big believer in the law of inertia, and once you stop, who's to say you'll ever return to doing something again. In the case of space science, some other war or some other shit thing will happen and I doubt we'll ever go back to it, and if we did, how much time and scientific progress would we have lost since then because we quit anyway?

I went to Kennedy Space Center in 2008 before the crash, where the tour guides were already worried about getting canned. There's a video there featuring the last guy to go into space, whose name of course I forget right now. He's already old when they filmed it, whenever that is, and he's saying how he can't wait to meet the next person that goes into space. I watched that and thought, "Yeah, right, you'll be long dead before that happens." Hell, his grandchildren might be long dead before that happens.

Also, I feel pissed that the kewl scientific futures that I like to read in fiction and watch on screen are never going to get close to our reality. Our science isn't going to go to exploration, just to tinier phones and bigger guns. Woo.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:15 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


@epsilon and -harlequin-. Exactly--terraforming Mars research and probes are the way. They aren't as Romantic.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 5:42 PM on April 27, 2011


I'm just really really really angry about this

Compare the cost of pounding Gadaffi with a hundred Tomahawks or whatever.
$500B/year = $57,039,776.40 per hour. Rinse and repeat.
posted by Twang at 5:47 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's the scientific motivation for terraforming Mars? That sound more like an engineering problem.
posted by ryanrs at 5:51 PM on April 27, 2011


Most of the science & engineer types I know think SETI is a waste of time and money.

Most of them I've known think anything is a waste unless it's what they're personally interested in. They're kind of conservative in that way.

For Big Science, $5M is the budget for men's-room hand-drying towels. It's a pittance. If we haven't got that much imagination, we're too fucked for BS to do us any good.
posted by Twang at 5:54 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


If we haven't got that much imagination

If this is about imagination or inspiration, then treat it as entertainment and fund it that way.

It's not good science, and it's a waste of time IMO. I have no problem with wastes of time -- I watch TV, after all. But treating this as a tragedy of science is silly to me.

Even in the realm of space, something like the Hubble is more amazing and awe-inspiring than something like SETI.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:23 PM on April 27, 2011


Are we alone in the universe? Pffft, who cares??? I mean, what possible implications could that have, either way? As long as I can watch Star Trek on my Blu-Ray player, why would I waste my time on boring crap like SETI? Now that's entertainment!
posted by Crabby Appleton at 6:41 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, he's trolling on another thread, too. Never mind.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 6:42 PM on April 27, 2011


If this is about imagination or inspiration, then treat it as entertainment and fund it that way.

I have no problem with that. As I pointed out upthread, $5million is less than half of the opening weekend take of a hollywood flop.
posted by hippybear at 7:26 PM on April 27, 2011


Also, I feel pissed that the kewl scientific futures that I like to read in fiction and watch on screen are never going to get close to our reality. Our science isn't going to go to exploration, just to tinier phones and bigger guns. Woo.

We we have almost a half-dozen active planetary missions around three planets, including a technological miracle orbiting Mercury for the first time. We have multiple missions with eyes on the sun. We have a planned mission to the dwarf planet Pluto, with some interesting new discoveries about its atmosphere. We have an exosolar planet mission that's delivered over 1,000 new worlds for us to examine. We have space-based telescopes that can give us pictures of gamma-ray bursts in minutes. We have X-ray, Gamma, infrared, and even a detector at the South Pole. We're discovering weird and amazing things about the universe on a monthly basis.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:34 PM on April 27, 2011


I mean, if you're going to chase after the Astronomical Fountain of Youth you might as well be smart about it. At the end of Kepler's run, we'll have a data set of over 2,000 candidate planets that will allow us better estimate the odds of habitable-zone planets. We might even get clever and find life on one or two of them. At the end of this decade, we can have a much better idea about where and how to look for life, and possibly intelligence beyond blindly groping with full-sky surveys.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:50 PM on April 27, 2011


Uhh, the full sky survey is the actual astronomy part.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:07 PM on April 27, 2011


My previous comment was based on a misreading, and I withdraw it, and apologize for it.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:08 PM on April 27, 2011


"The aliens will contact us when they can make money by doing so." - David Byrne
posted by neuron at 8:36 PM on April 27, 2011


The SETI League is an organization of eager and capable SETI hobbyists.

It is closely affiliated with The Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers.
posted by neuron at 8:39 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Senator John Pastore: Is there anything connected in the hopes of [The Superconducting Supercollider] that in any way involves the security of the country?

Robert Wilson (scientist): No, sir; I do not believe so.

Pastore: Nothing at all?

Wilson: Nothing at all.

Pastore: It has no value in that respect?

Wilson: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military, I am sorry.

Pastore: Don't be sorry for it.

Wilson: I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

Pastore: Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

Wilson: Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

posted by neuron at 8:52 PM on April 27, 2011 [9 favorites]


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