Looking into the darkness

I was most unhappy to learn that SETI Institute has seen its Allen Telescope Array mothballed due to a lack of funding. The ATA, based at a UC Berkeley astronomy facility, scanned the sky looking for anomalous radio signals that might indicate solid evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. But it cost money to run and currently attracts insufficient public funding and scant private donations. Consequently the array has been powered down and put into hibernation.

Quite recently I had become involved in the separate SETI@Home project, having felt inspired to do so after reading Carl Sagan’s excellent novel Contact. That piece of speculative fiction sets out to explore what would happen if an unmistakable signal came in. Since Sagan was a world-class astronomer, a SETI visionary and a superlative scientific communicator, his take on the subject is one worth anyone’s time.

SETI@Home volunteers offer their unused computer processor time to analyse the vast amounts of data generated by SETI – linking together to form a virtual supercomputer. I really value being a part of this, and think it is a wonderful way to channel interest in science and the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence that, if left unchecked, can descend into all kinds of UFO-spotting nonsense and conspiracy theorising. SETI@Home data doesn’t come from the ATA, and so will continue unimpeded – see its Q&A here.

The treatment of SETI (which is actually an acronym for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) as a serious scientific discipline is part of Sagan’s legacy and to see the SETI Institute’s telescope in hibernation is quite tragic. It’s easy to become gloomy over things like this (along with the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle fleet and the senseless grounding of the Concorde supersonic jets, leading to the miserable conclusion that human civilisation has peaked and is now in decline) and, therefore, a reminder from Sagan himself about the reasons to remain optimistic and press on with the search is particularly timely.

After all, CERN may just have found the Higgs Boson…