Nerds Howl as Lack of Funding Shuts Down SETI's Alien Search

But they'd just found 1,235 new planets!

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A lack of funding has forced California's SETI Institute--that's the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence--to put its Allen Telescope Array into "hibernation," according to a letter CEO Tom Pierson sent to donors on April 22. The Allen array, a group of 42 radio dishes paid for with a donation from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has been scanning the skies for years in the hopes of detecting evidence of alien life. But money from the National Science Foundation and the state of California has run out, and the dishes are powering down until SETI can find a new benefactor. (They've got their eye on the Air Force, which sounds like a movie waiting to happen.)

The news has occasioned plenty of dismay among scientific (and pop-scientific) types--including, obviously, the SETI folks themselves. The San Jose Mercury News notes that "the timing couldn't be worse, say SETI scientists... This spring astronomers announced that 1,235 new possible planets had been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite. They predict that dozens of these planets will be Earth-sized -- and some will be in the 'habitable zone,' where the temperatures are just right for liquid water, a prerequisite of life as we know it."

Annalee Newitz at io9 calls the shutdown of the Allen array "a terrible tragedy." Audrey Watters at ReadWriteWeb says it's "sad news for astronomy and for alien research, and even worse news if there is in fact intelligent life out there wanting to contact Earth." (Meanwhile, John Paczkowski at All Things Digital jokes that it's "good news for alien privacy advocates." It's no laughing matter, John.)

David Zax at Fast Company points out that the Allen shutdown actually carries some sobering implications for "high technology, and the economy." Zax quotes SETI astronomer Seth Shostak, who says that "the kind of tech that is developed for SETI, these antenna arrays, monitor 100 million channels simultaneously. There's no commercial application for that now, but the lesson of history is that whenever you develop a new technical capability, you often find an interesting market for it." To which Zax adds:

If you're going to pony up for SETI, you don't even have to do it for the sake of exploration, or science, or knowledge, or cosmic connectedness. Do it for the American economy, or for something even more selfish--your gadget lust.

(N.B.: Your correspondent used to write for io9 and is, obviously, very much one of the "nerds" referred to in this article's headline. The term is used in solidarity.)

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