A couple of weeks ago, I was at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. I had a couple hours to spare, so planetary scientist Dr. Franck Marchis invited me to swing by for a quick tour. I reluctantly (not) accepted.
There was an obvious elephant in the room. The news had been reporting that SETI had lost its funding, and since I (like most people) assumed that SETI consisted of 4 or 5 people in a crappy rented office somewhere, I was expecting to find those 4 or 5 people packing boxes and getting ready to move out, and polishing their resumes to get “real jobs” somewhere. I quickly learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
What I didn’t know, and am now a bit embarrassed to admit, is that I was unaware of everything SETI does except one thing. They listen for signals from technological civilizations on other planets. Yes, they do indeed do that; using the Allen radio telescope array (named for its primary sponsor, Paul Allen). The Allen telescope is what lost its $2.5 million annual funding, and that does indeed impact SETI’s work. But it impacts one small part of what SETI actually does.
SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) does a lot more. Their charter is, in essence, based on the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation calculates how many intelligent civilizations are out there. It looks like this:
- N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
- R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
- fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
- ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
- fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
- fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
- fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
- L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
That’s a lot of variables. Any branch of science that falls within any one of those variables is within SETI’s charter. I went not to an office with 4 or 5 frazzled people, but to a beautiful office building entirely populated with 130+ scientists all working on projects that impact one or more of those variables. I met a guy studying whale languages, someone characterizing the surface of Mars, and of course Franck, who specializes in asteroids that have broken in half and have become twin asteroids. Astrobiology is everywhere you look in the building. And all of it – all of it – is optimized for education and outreach. SETI is not just a national treasure; it’s a human treasure.
Although the Allen telescope is in jeopardy (it’s currently surviving in skeleton-crew mode for maintenance), the SETI Institute itself covers countless research projects, funded by many grants from many sources, both public and private. SETI is not going out of business. In fact, I’ve been in touch with them and we’re trying to set up a talk. They give free-to-the-public talks every month in their beautiful conference center.
I can’t stress this hard enough, and I wouldn’t be able to if I hadn’t seen it first-hand: SETI will blow your mind. It’s not going away, and you could spend a day marveling at any one of its many branches.
That’s not to say that the Allen telescope’s financial crisis doesn’t suck. It does. And it impacts SETI’s ability to continue work on its most PR-worthy project, the analysis of radio signals. All of the other work, narrowing down the other variables in the Drake Equation, is independently important too; but if we can’t point the telescopes to where we think the signals might be coming from, it’s like building an exotic race car and not putting gas in the tank. Other work in astronomy has been discovering exoplanets at a stupid rate. We’ve got more leads than ever before, and just when we need them most, we can’t point our radio telescopes to listen.
Take a look at this page to learn more about the SETI Institute.