Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Goodbye SETI

The SETI Institute has fallen on hard times:

In an April 22, 2011 email ... SETI Institute CEO Tom Pierson described in detail the recent decision by U.C. Berkeley ... to reduce operations of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory (and thus the Allen Telescope Array) to a hibernation state effective this month. NSF University Radio Observatory funding to Berkeley for HCRO operations has been reduced to approximately one-tenth of its former level and, concurrently, growing State of California budget shortfalls have severely reduced the amount of state funds available for support of the HCRO site.

This makes me sad. I know that in the past I've expressed some rather pessimistic views on the topic, but I've got no problem with passive scanning: it's safe and cheap, and (even though it's admittedly a long-shot) it has the potential to change humanity's outlook on the universe forever. I mean, can you imagine waking up one morning to see a headline like

We Are Not Alone!
(film at 11)


But maybe some eccentric millionaire will save the day. Ex-MS honcho Paul Allen has already given them $30 million to fund the initial array of telescopes. "In for a penny, in for a pound" -- maybe he'll pull out the seat-cushions on his sofa and dig around and find an extra $5 million to keep SETI running for a couple more years. I really hope so.

$5 million, though ... it's like pocket lint compared to the, what, $6+ billion that's been spent on the Large Hadron Collider? And SETI is a whole lot easier to explain to the average tax-payer. Although maybe that's a problem and not an advantage. Cynic that I am, if you tell Joe Citizen that "SETI is the search for intelligent life out in space", what he hears is "SETI wants $5 million to hunt for flying saucers." Which is probably not helpful.

On the other hand, if you tell him "The Large Hadron Collider will address some of the most fundamental questions of physics, advancing the understanding of the deepest laws of nature" ... well, hell, I'm not sure what the average person thinks of that. Probably something like "I dunno what it is, but all these science guys are backing it, so it must be a winner." The nice thing about basic pure research is that you never really know what's going to come out of it. So when people ask you questions, you can say pretty much anything you want: "it could lead to unlimited free energy", "it could solve global warming", "it could lead to new medical techniques", etc etc and so forth.

This is not to say that pure basic research is easy to fund -- just look at the poor Superconducting Supercollider that lost its funding in 1993. But SETI has connotations of "flying saucers" and "little green men"; The LHC is all about "the God Particle" and "Baryonic Matter" and cool impressive terms like that. Even Conan O'Brien couldn't make a good joke about Baryonic Matter. (The best I've ever managed involved the "Mushroom Mattar" at the local Indian buffet).

*sigh* Five million dollars. It seems like a trivial sum in some contexts, but I know from practical experience that It's Hard To Make Five Million Dollars. "Well, duh!" you say. But ... my day job involves working for a very large international corporation, one that grosses billions of dollars in revenue every year. A few years ago I was sent to South Korea to assist on a project, one that I can't talk about except to say that it was a very small piece of a much larger project that involved building a new city. My project had an estimated cost of $5 million USD. I met all kinds of VIPs and bigshots, was shown all manner of plans and forecasts and models and whatnot. There was a *lot* of money involved. I figured it was a no-brainer that my measley $5 million project would get approved -- probably rubber-stamped by some junior assistant project approval guy in a basement cubicle.

Boy was I wrong. There were endless meetings, demos, justifications, presentations. And every day the project team grew -- I never figured out what role 3/4s of them were supposed to be doing (although I had been forewarned by someone with prior experience: "Korea? Oh man ... you're gonna love the way they manage to squeeze in all of their cousins and uncles and friends on every deal" and as near as I could tell, he was totally (if not politically) correct).

Anyhow -- in the end, the project never happened. I was surprised: I thought that billion dollar corporate entities would trade off "minor" million dollar projects like pocket change. There's a classic sales principle wherein you attempt to sell the big dollar item first -- a $2000 suit, for instance, and then hit the customer up with $50 cufflinks, a $75 cravat pin, etc, which somehow seems less expensive in the wake of the two grand you just dropped. But that didn't seem to happen here.

In truth, I never did figure out what happened to kill the project. When I was over there, I saw a museum quality scale model of the proposed city, complete with lights and working bridges and cranes and such, it was about 15 meters long and probably cost at least a million bucks. So someone was throwing money around. Maybe my team just never met Daddy Warbucks. There was, frankly, a lot of stuff I never quite figured out: the Korean language is composed of about 5% English "loanwords", which means that if I listened very carefully, I could almost kinda get the feeling that maybe I understood about 1/20th of what people were talking about.

All in all, a most educational experience, I learned much. I learned that I could drink most Koreans under the table, and that I don't like Korean food. But the most important lesson I learned was: It's Hard To Make Five Million Dollars.

Good luck, SETI.

And now for something completely different: while Googling for something else I randomly encountered this gem: The Aesthetics Of Science Fiction Spaceship Design, which is the Master's thesis of one Kate Kinnear at U Waterloo. It's a 26MB PDF but fairly easy reading, and the topic is Pure Fun. It must be nice to have a Master's Thesis that other people will actually want to read. I stuck a $10 bill in my (paper) thesis back in 1985 and 4 years later I came back and checked and it was still there. It's probably there now.

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