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What You Didn’t Know about SETI

by Brian Dunning, Jun 09 2011

130 scientists work at SETI, doing much more than you think you know.

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.

Frank Drake's office at SETI. This is like church for many geeks.

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 = R^{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L \!


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
f = 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.

This is where the SETI folks sit to control the Allen telescope array. Note the screens are dark. Note that's a problem.

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.

48 Responses to “What You Didn’t Know about SETI”

  1. Aya says:

    If what you are saying is true, then they have a HUGH PR problem and they should address that.
    When people hear SETI , they know it means searching for UFO and UFOs have a bad reputation. Because of UFO sightings and the hoaxes involved, the SETI institute gets lumped with the crazies.
    I personally think that there are other beings out there but that searching for them is a waste of money and resources.

    If they are indeed doing a lot of other things, maybe they should change their name or at least try to publicize their work.

    And last, when a scientist working there goes to a professional convention or submits a paper and she says – I work for SETI – I wonder what the reaction is.

  2. Trimegistus says:

    So because of budget cutbacks, they eliminated the only part of the program to Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence that actually does the searching? My sympathy kind of evaporated when you started talking about how beautiful their offices are and how they’re sponsoring irrelevant side projects. (Whale songs? As if marine biologists don’t study that?)

    This is exactly what groups like the T.E.A. Party mean when they complain about wasteful government spending.

    • Trimegistus, maybe the whale song study is being done by marine biologists (or paid for by whale wildlife organizations)? It’s not uncommon for scientists in one field to utilize the equipment and facilities of another field to do their research. And there are marine biologists that work at SETI, which can relate to astrobiology.

      But, one reason for studying whale language may be connected to increasing our understanding of ‘intelligent’ languages in general – which could help in the event that extra-terrestrial communication is received?

      • Trimegistus says:

        In other words, they’re decorating the table and preparing the serving dishes but have given up on catching the fish.

      • Aya says:

        Does fish = ET ?

        When you want to communicate, metaphors don’t do the job.
        Try writing poetry.

      • Max says:

        Brian Dunning already gave a simile: “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.”

      • Do we want to build the race car?

        First, as I noted below, the likelihood of an actual discovery is a LOT slimmer than Drake would have us believe.

        Second, per Hawking, if we did meet aliens, it could spell curtains for our planet. Even if they’re not hostile, per Arthur C. Clarke, they might seem so godlike that humanity’s collective psyche would crumble.

    • gdave says:


      As Mr. Dunning states, the “side projects” are “funded by many grants from many sources, both public and private.” That is, individual research projects are funded by specific grants from outside sources for that specific research. SETI doesn’t have $2.5 million sitting around in general funds it can reallocate to to keep the Allen Telescope Array operating at full capacity.

      The ATA was funded by, and operated in cooperation with, UC-Berkeley. However, due to California’s state budget cutbacks (they’re in the midst of a major fiscal crisis), UC-Berkeley had to cut its budget, and decided to cease funding the ATA.

      Just to be clear, since it seems you may be a bit confused about this, the SETI Institute is a private, non-profit organization. It does not directly receive any public funding (some individual research projects that its members carry out are funded by government grants, as was the ATA via UC-Berkeley, but not the organization as a whole). There was a NASA-based SETI project in the 1990s, which you may be thinking of, but NASA never funded the SETI Institute, and NASA’s SETI projected was scrapped in 1995.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Yeah it is what the teabaggers mean, and it shows you how ill informed they are, because the amount of tax money spent on SETI is zero.

    • Trimegistus: You object to whale language being studied, or you just object to where some of the scientists who study are located? What’s your reasoning?

      • Trimegistus says:

        Of course I have no objection to studying whale language. But for an organization dedicated to SETI to study whale language seems redundant, especially if they don’t have funds to do, y’know, SETI research.

        I’m sorry I mentioned the T.E.A. Party. It kicked everyone here into instinctive political loyalty mode and shut off the rational part of your brains.

      • tmac57 says:

        The SETI mission statement:

        “The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”

        This isn’t just about ET’s.

      • Beelzebud says:

        You were operating in that mode all by yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t have brought up the teabaggers at all, given that SETI isn’t even funded by tax money.

      • Trimegistus says:

        “Funding for SETI Institute programs comes from a variety of sources. Contrary to popular belief, no government funds are allocated for its SETI searches – these are financed entirely by private contributions. Other astrobiology research at the SETI Institute may be funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, or other grants and donations.”

        In other words, they cancelled the non-tax-supported SETI research to concentrate on the taxpayer-funded parts.

      • Beelzebud says:

        “In other words, they cancelled the non-tax-supported SETI research to concentrate on the taxpayer-funded parts.”

        Yes I agree that those are other words. The problem with them is that they aren’t based in reality, and aren’t true.

        If you’re so worried about how your tax money is spent, you should really start out by learning what exactly it’s being spent on.

      • Max says:

        My guess is that most marine biologists study whale language to understand whales, while the SETI researchers study whale language to understand languages.

      • gdave says:


        “In other words, they cancelled the non-tax-supported SETI research to concentrate on the taxpayer-funded parts.”

        Again, no. The Allen Telescope Array was funded by the University of California at Berkeley, and operated jointly by UC-B and the SETI Institute (which used private contributions to fund its use of the ATA for SETI searches). UC-B, NOT SETI, decided to de-fund the ATA. The SETI institute’s private donations were enough to cover its use of the ATA, but not nearly enough to cover the full operating costs. The SETI Institute is looking for alternate funding for the ATA, but does not have nearly enough in its general operating funds to cover the costs (about $2.5 million a year).

        The SETI institute also supports a number of other research projects (which I was unaware of until I read this blog post). These other projects MAY be funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, OR OTHER GRANTS AND DONATIONS. That is, some of these other projects are funded by government agencies, some are funded by grants from other private non-profits, and some are funded by private donations.

        If a research project (say, studying whale songs) is funded by a government grant, that money CANNOT be re-directed to fund another project, such as operating the ATA. If the SETI Institute re-directed funds granted by the NSF for a project on studying whale songs from that project and towards the operating costs of the ATA, they would be committing a federal crime.

        Private grants will generally also be restricted to use for a specific project. Although the SETI Institute undoubtedly receives undirected donations it can re-allocate as it wishes, many donations are also undoubtedly made with specific provisions for their use. In these cases, re-directing the funds to keep the ATA operating would be at least a civil breach of contract, if not actually criminal.

        I’m honestly not sure where the disconnect here is. I’ll try to be as clear as possible. The SETI Institute did not shut down the ATA, whether to concentrate on other avenues of research or for any other reasons. The University of California at Berkeley pulled out of the ATA, and without UC-B, the SETI Institute simply does not have the funds available to keep the ATA operating and full capacity (they are funding a skeleton staff to keep the ATA maintained in stand-by mode).

        The other research projects the SETI Institute supports are mainly funded by specific grants (some of them government, some of them private), which cannot legally be re-directed to support the ATA, and private donations, some of which may also have legal restrictions on their use, and others which could be re-directed to support the ATA, but which are insufficient to cover the full operating costs.

    • “wasteful government spending”

      Ignornace would be funny if it wasn’t so common. I sure hope we find intelligent life out there, because, bugger it all, there doesn’t seem to be much here.

  3. gdave says:

    Mr. Dunning:

    Thanks for this post. I originally read about the Allen Telescope Array being shut down on the Bad Astronomy blog, and participated in a rather lengthy comment thread about the funding cuts and budget priorities, and never knew that the ATA was only one part of what SETI did. I assumed (as you did), that without the ATA, SETI would be a handful of forlorn astronomers, sitting around with nothing useful to do. It’s good to know that SETI is still performing useful science and public outreach.

  4. CountryGirl says:

    Of course it makes perfect sense to fund SETI and cut back on Medicare!

  5. peter says:

    “Of course it makes perfect sense to fund SETI and cut back on Medicare!”

    Oh yes, it is science that grabs the money away from social programs, fer sure. Conveniently forgetting the billions that are funneled into private pockets of contractors from the public purse by several wars the US is currently engaged in.
    But, what level of knowledge to expect from a country girl?

  6. Beelzebud says:

    Sorry but I can’t ignore this. Isn’t it funny that the two people posting about their precious tax dollars, had no clue what their tax money is actually spent on?

  7. oldebabe says:

    Speaking of Drake equation variables, if SETI is using/studying the Drake equation (shown above as possibilities), then surely they have identified the thing that’s missing, i.e. time.

    As a non cosmologist, physicist, or mathematician, that’s the thing that bothers me, the time frame for all those `f’ planets and their potential for life happening is missing, i.e. that time may have come and gone…(or yet to come)and how would we know or use the equation to identify without that particular variable as an intrinsic part?

    Keep on, SETI.

  8. Drake himself overestimated to highly overestimated the likelihood of the various variables being true. And, I think he did so deliberately.

    Paul Davis addresses this and other stuff VERY well in “The Eerie Silence”:

    From my Amazon review:

    Davies says why traditional SETI ideas are so cockeyed optimistic, with detail. But not just that.

    He also carefully explains how we have likely been, “Looking for aliens in all the wrong places,” not too mention all the wrong ways and more.

    In short, to riff on a Web term, Davies explicitly calls for SETI 2.0 to start up – now.

    That said, he thinks that it’s quite likely that, in our galaxy at least, no matter how strange the possibilities of alien life might be … it just isn’t there.

    He even wonders if the thirst, the yen for SETI to pan out, on some people’s parts, isn’t almost religious.

    • Tom says:

      I agree with you that this is most probably a waste of time. But then I think:
      a) It’s privately funded
      b) There must be some useful applications generated by all the work they do in evaluating signals (i.e. making radio telescopes better for general science).
      c) Hey, I might be wrong. It would be really cool if they ever came up with something.
      So, while I would never donate to SETI or want to see serious research money going there, it doesn’t really bother me if Paul Allen wants to blow his cash on that rather than a new 300 foot yacht.

  9. Aya says:

    Why doesn’t someone make an equation for the chances of actually finding something with the ATA ?
    I keep hearing about the Drake equation but not about the chances of current technology to find any. Perhaps we should wait for better technology and better chances.

    And if we find them – it could push us forward or it could end very badly.

    I think that the search is motivated by feelings and not science – some people think that ET is somehow going to save us from ourselves.
    Maybe we should sort ourselves out before we look out there.

  10. Craig says:

    Yeah, well I learned the REAL TRUTH about SETI last night when I watched “Species”! They really want to have our planet overrun with deadly copies of Natasha Henstridge!

    Which is why, of course, SETI has my full support.

  11. Douglas says:

    SETI’s problem is that they are largely sponsored by cooks. The SETI set up has accomplished a lot of work in terms of radio astronomy, and they sell that to the right people, and recieve grants for it. But it’s the whole “alien” thing that turns people off, because that is their primary charter. Doesn’t matter how broad their fields are, in fact broad fields are insignificant when they are unrelated.

    I’m not a bad electrician, not a bad discrete electronics tech, not a bad carpenter, not a horrible machinist, a mediocre programer. That crap about “that formula is a lot of area’s” means “These people don’t don’t really know what they are doing, other than looking for aliens.”

    I Agree, it’s unfair, there is some real stuff happening in there, but ultimately it’s built on cook/”whooo” foundation.

  12. Joseph says:

    That entire thing is a fraud. We now know that some governments have been communicating with aliens decades ago.

  13. Petko says:


    • tmac57 says:

      Yes,and the message appears to be, (as best as it can be deciphered):
      “Send more Chuck Berry”.

      The NSA is not sure what that means,but they are working around the clock to figure it out.

  14. tmac57 says:

    To those who haven’t listened to it,I would highly recommend SETI’s radio show/podcast ‘Are We Alone’ (soon to be ‘Big Picture Science’).It is a well produced popular science program (not just about ET),that covers most branches of science,with entertaining and interesting interviews aimed at educating the average non-scientist listener.

  15. Michael says:

    SETI is sponsored by cooks??

    • Bill says:


      And there are apparently too many of them, as they’ve spoiled the array.

      ducking and running…

      • gdave says:

        LOL :)

        The above is all I had to say, but the blog software rejected the comment as too short (anti-spamming measure?) so this is all filler.

  16. Franck Marchis (@AllPlanets) says:

    FYI The SETI Institute reinitiated the search for technosignatures beginning of December 2011 thanks to generous donors like some of you. Thanks