The Allen Telescope Array, a major instrument designed to speed up our hunt for intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy, has been turned off.
On April 15, this phalanx of small antennas, built to eavesdrop on signals that might reach us from civilizations hundreds of trillions of miles distant, was put into park, and its multimillion channel receivers powered down. It's as if Columbus's armada of ships, having barely cleared Cadiz, were suddenly ordered back to Spain.
The reason for the shutdown is both prosaic and lamentable. Money. The Array was built as a joint project between the SETI Institute (my employer) and the University of California at Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory. The former raised the funds to construct the instrument, and UC Berkeley was responsible for operations. But the grievous financial situation of the State of California and reduced funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) have sharply curtailed the university's research budget, and private donations haven't yet been adequate to keep the Array in operation.
In tough economic times, a lot of folks who hear this story will dismiss its importance. After all, with problems like expensive health care, a weakened education system, and pervasive joblessness, it's unlikely that people are going to march in the streets to get the hunt for ET back on track. They're more likely to shake their heads, and profess that this sort of exploration is superfluous.
Frankly, it's easy to suggest that basic research, the kind that's done for curiosity rather than to spawn a product, should take a back seat to immediate needs. I still recall the schoolboy in Australia who wanted to know why, with people starving in the world's baleful backwaters, the U.S. was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on "motorized skateboards sent to Mars." From his point of view, they did little more than paw at the dirt and make some nice photos.
The answer is that discovering new things is what distinguishes our species. That's not glib; that's the difference between the grinding monotony of the Middle Ages and life after the Renaissance. Are we destined to merely endure, or to flourish?
It's hard to imagine anything more interesting than learning how we're woven into the enormous tapestry of existence. Where did our universe come from? How special is our world, and how special are we?
We allocate tens of billions of dollars annually to NASA, NSF and academia in search of the answers. Sure, nobody will make a fortune if we figure out why the Big Bang happened. But just about everyone would like to know.
Finding evidence of intelligence elsewhere in the galaxy would also be profoundly interesting. We would know if sophisticated beings are rare -- possibly even miraculous -- or a cosmic commonplace.
So let's put it in perspective: the Americans and the Europeans have invested enormous effort in getting spacecraft to Mars, in an attempt to unravel the history of this tantalizing planet. But most people -- and that includes scientists as well as the citizenry -- are less interested in the particulars of Red Planet geology than in the question of whether this world ever hosted life. Was there ever anything as lively as pond scum on Mars?
This hunt for alien biology in our solar system costs you a few dollars per year. What would be the surcharge to augment this exploration by adding a radio experiment that could turn up life on worlds around other stars? Life that's not microbial, not mindless moss, but as clever as we are?
A few additional cents.
The SETI Institute is making strenuous efforts to resuscitate the Allen Telescope Array and put it back on the air. Obviously, I have a dog in this fight -- I'm part of the search team that uses the Array.
But let me suggest that you are, too. You're a member of the first generation possessing technology good enough to turn up some cosmic company, and your financial support could restart this instrument. We can never prove that we're alone in the universe. But the Allen Telescope Array could prove that we're not.
For more information, or to help resuscitate the Allen Telescope Array , please visit the SETI Institute's homepage.