Monday, October 16, 2006

Why Is SETI Insulting its Supporters?

Yesterday on Fark, a link was greenlit that pointed to a calendared Major SETI Institute Announcement for today. SETI, of course, is the Institute for the Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence, which lives on tax dollars, donations and leeched processor time. At the time the link was posted, the announcement said merely:

Major SETI Institute Announcement

10:00 - 11:00 am PDT

Date: Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Location: SETI Institute, 515 N. Whisman Road, Mountain View, CA, US

Web Site Address:

Guess what happened. A whole bunch of space nerds, like me, got very excited. After all, what could possibly constitute a "Major" announcement from an institute whose only function is to search for extraterrestial life? Well, duh. As it turns out, it's not a "major" announcement at all but, as an editor particularly given to public jackassery pointed out, a "mundane" announcement:

Editor's update: For all of you out there who have been waving your arms around and speculating, this is not an announcement about finding a signal from ETs, the face on Mars, or anything else. It is far more mundane. Details of the announcement were released - under press embargo - to reporters last week. A press release about the announcement will be issued on Tuesday by the SETI Institute.

Not even this public smackdown of its supporters was sufficient for SETI. Again, it bears noting that this is an organization who lives on your tax dollars, leeched processor time and continuing good will. No, SETI had to go from condescending to downright obnoxious, addressing its biggest supporters thusly:

Editor's update: To those of you who have been speculating about what will be announced tomorrow: The original calendar posting on this page simply had date, time, and location. Nothing else. It was posted here a week ago - on 9 October. A detailed - but embargoed - media alert was sent out at the same time to reporters by the SETI Institute in which no mention is made of signals from outer space. Yet, the announcement is indeed a major one for the SETI Institute.

Please ask yourself this: do you (1) really think that the SETI Institute would issue some sort of major announcement i.e. detection of a signal from another civilization - a week ahead of announcing it formally - and then (2) expect the media to sit on such amazing news - for an entire week? The next time y'all start to whip up a frenzy - out of thin air - use a little common sense before you hit [send].

Okay, Mr. Editor, we get the picture. Now understand this: There is one -- and only one -- potential SETI announcement that qualifies as "Major." Those of us who pay your bills and allow you to leech our processor time don't give a flying fig about re-orgs, dedications, new hires, etc. We care only about the mission. So, get over yourselves. Next time you characterize something as a "Major" announcement, ET had better be on the line. If not, boincs are going to go dark and you can play with your own processor time. SETI would do well to remember that it is not the only organization in the world capable of performing its mission and that what the taxpayer giveth, the taxpayer can taketh away.

One more thing: I'm far less upset about the misleading nature of the original announcement than about the nasty updates telling interested SETI-watchers that they are acting like idiots. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

So, what is the Major Mundane Announcement? We'll know soon -- in about three hours.

More: Well, here's the Major Announcement:
On Tuesday, October 17, the SETI Institute . . . unveil[ed] a new center to study life in the universe and a fund-raising strategy to counter NASA's proposed budget cuts for astrobiology research. From 10 to 11 a.m. at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, a distinguished panel of institute trustees and staff will announce the formation of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe. The center's activities will focus on astrobiology and be dedicated to the memory of planetary scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan. The panel will explain a new emphasis on fundraising from private sources to offset a proposed 50 percent budget cut by NASA for astrobiology research.
So, a center to study all that life we've found. Okay, that's not fair. An astro-biology center is a necessary step. Given all we've learned about extremophiles here on earth and all the unexpected environments we've discovered in just our solar system, including Europa, Enceladus and Titan, it's not that far-fetched to believe we will find extraterrestial life -- or convincing evidence thereof -- in our solar system within the next few decades.

But. Is astro-biology SETI's job? Especially in view of the budget cuts it references in the very same release? There is plenty of interest in astro-biology out in the profession and considerable thought and work is already being invested. The search for extraterrestial intelligence? Well, not so much. For my money -- and it is just that -- SETI should spend what it gets on its mission and not worry about what it will do if funding for that mission ever drys up. Diversifying the mission as a long-term survival strategy may be great for bureaucrats but it's undertaken at the expense of the . . . um . . . seti.