How Paul Allen Saved the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
by Daniel Oberhaus October 16, 2018 (motherboard.vice.com)
• On October 15th, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen (pictured above) died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 65. In addition to owning the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, Allen founded a brain science institute, an AI institute, and Stratolaunch Systems, which was exploring private spaceflight. In addition, Allen almost single-handedly rescued American SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) by donating over $30 million to scientists scanning the cosmos for intelligent radio signals.
• During the 1980’s, SETI was generally funded through participating university programs and endowments. In the 1990’s as university funding diminished, NASA began helping to fund SETI. But that only lasted a year before some in Congress complained that we were wasting money on a “great Martian chase.” SETI realized that the only hope for the future was private funding.
• Barney Oliver, the founder of Hewlett Packard laboratories and SETI supporter, contacted his billionaire buddies Bill Hewlett and David Packard, Intel founder Gordon Moore, and Paul Allen to successfully raise $20 million to keep SETI’s research moving forward.
• SETI was leasing global telescopes for its projects. But ultimately, SETI wanted its own dedicated array of radio telescopes to target hundreds of stars at a time. SETI’s founder, Jill Tarter, put together an array of 350 20-foot radio telescopes, but needed $25 million to purchase it. Paul Allen stepped up and footed the bill to create the first American SETI telescope array located in northern California. “There’s no doubt that Paul saved American SETI,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.
• By 2007, the SETI array consisted of 42 telescopes. At the dedication ceremony, Paul Allen pushed the button to turn the system on. Over the past ten years, the SETI array has analyzed 200 million signals from thousands of stars, studied unusual high-energy radio emissions, and even scanned the “spliff-shaped” Oumuamua asteroid for signs of intelligent life. Paul Allen had turned his attention to other projects, and the array was shut down for a year in 2011 due to lack of continued funding, however. But Allen remained a public supporter. Said Allen, “I think everybody would admit [the prospect of communicating with extraterrestrials] is a long shot, but if that long shot comes in…”
On Monday evening, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 65. At the time of his death, Allen was the 47th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $26 billion. For the last few decades of his life, Allen used his wealth for a staggering variety of business and philanthropic interests. In addition to owning the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, Allen founded a brain science institute, an AI institute, and Stratolaunch Systems, which was exploring private spaceflight.
Yet one of the research areas where Allen made the biggest impact was also the one he spoke about the least: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Indeed, Allen almost single-handedly rescued American SETI by donating over $30 million to scientists scanning the cosmos for intelligent radio signals.
SETI’s early years in the United States was mostly defined by intermittent searches bankrolled with public funds, such as the National Science Foundation-funded program at Ohio State University which discovered the Wow! signal, or university endowments, such as Harvard’s Project Sentinel. By the early 90s, however, many of the early SETI programs had ended. The best hope for detecting extraterrestrial intelligence seemed to be NASA’s first foray into SETI, the Microwave Observing Program, which began observations in 1992.
Less than a year after the start of NASA’s SETI program, it was killed by members of Congress who didn’t want to waste money on the “great Martian chase.” The SETI Institute, a nonprofit founded in 1984 by the radio astronomer Jill Tarter, wasn’t going to let SETI die at the hands of a few cynical congressmen, but it also realized that the only hope for the future was privately funded searches.
Fortunately, one of the earliest SETI Institute supporters was Barney Oliver, who founded and directed Hewlett Packard laboratories. So in 1993 Oliver called Bill Hewlett and David Packard of Hewlett Packard, Intel founder Gordon Moore, and Paul Allen to ask for their support.
“It probably only took Barney a few hours on the phone to get each of them to commit $1 million every year for the next five years,” Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, told me on the phone. “I’m not sure any of them were particularly interested in SETI, but they were interested in whatever Barney thought was a good idea.”
This $20 million commitment bankrolled Project Phoenix, a SETI program that ran from 1995 to 1998. Over the course of three years, Project Phoenix rented time on the Parkes radio telescope in Australia and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to scan for signals from 800 stars within 200-light years of Earth.
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