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How Paul Allen Saved the American Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence



Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 65 on Monday night. At the time of his death, Allen was the world's 47th richest person with a net worth of $ 26 billion. In the last decades of his life, Allen used his wealth for an astonishing variety of business and philanthropic interests. In addition to the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, Allen founded a Brain Research Institute, an AI Institute, and Stratolaunch Systems, which dealt with private space travel.

One of the areas of research where Allen had the greatest impact was the one he least talked about: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In fact, Allen almost single-handedly saved the American SETI by donating over $ 30 million to scientists who searched the cosmos for smart radio signals.

SETI's first years in the United States were mainly defined by interrupted searches funded by public funds, such as the National Science Foundation-funded program at Ohio State University that called the Wow! Signal or university foundations, such as Harvard Project Sentinel. By the beginning of the 1

990s, however, many of the early SETI programs had ended. The best hope for the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence seemed to be NASA's first push in SETI, the Microwave Observing Program, which began in 1992 with observations.

Less than a year after the launch of NASA's SETI program, it was killed by members of Congress. I did not want to waste money on the "big hunt for Mars." The SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in 1984 by radio astronomer Jill Tarter, did not want to let SETI die by a few cynical congressmen, but it also realized that the only hope for the future was privately funded research.

Fortunately, Barney Oliver was one of the first supporters of the SETI Institute, which founded and led Hewlett-Packard Laboratories. So in 1993, Oliver phoned for support from Bill Hewlett and David Packard of Hewlett Packard, Intel founders Gordon Moore and Paul Allen.

"It probably only lasted a few hours on the phone until Barney got each one of them to make one million dollars a year for the next five years," Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute's chief astronomer, said over the phone. "I am not sure that some of them were particularly interested in SETI, but they were interested in what Barney thought was a good idea." This $ 20 million commitment was funded by 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 within 200 light-years from Earth to search for signals of 800 stars.

"There is no doubt that Paul saved the American SETI."

The Phoenix project was better than nothing, but the SETI astronomers realized that if the search was successful, they would need their own SETI radio telescope. Or better yet, a whole series of small telescopes that together allow a wide view of the sky and can hit hundreds of stars at the same time. This was the subject of a series of meetings organized by the SETI Institute between 1998 and 2000, which should be the next two decades of SETI research.

Under the guidance of Tarter, conference attendees have crafted a telescopic array design 350-foot 20-foot radio telescopes. There was only one question: who would pay the $ 25 million bill? Knowing that Allen had reinvigorated SETI with Project Phoenix a few years earlier, Tarter attacked him and asked if he could summon yet another monetary lifeboat. By the year 2000, Allen had made $ 25 million out of pocket to build a telescope facility in Northern California, the first facility specifically built for SETI in the United States.

"We were very excited at the institute," said Shostak. "Before the telescope array, we had to piggyback on other devices, it's like being a doctor, and every time you need to do some research, you have to borrow someone else's microscope." There is no doubt that Paul saved the American SETI . "

However, the cost of building a 350 telescope array was much more expensive than anyone had expected at the SETI Institute. By the time the Allen Telescope Array went online in 2007, only 42 telescopes had been built and Allen's donation had been largely consumed.

  Aerial view of the Allen telescope array

Aerial view of the Allen telescope array. Image: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute

Shostak told me that he was there for the inauguration ceremony where Allen "pushed the button" to turn on the system. He said he had a brief opportunity to talk with Allen about what had fueled his interest in SETI. According to Shostak, Allen told him that it was time to find new ways to use technology.

"I thought it was just a point of discussion, but Allen's whole career supports that," Shostak said. "The array conformed to this philosophy."

For the past decade, the Allen Telescope Array has had as many successes as setbacks. It has analyzed 200 million signals from thousands of stars, investigated unusual high-energy radio emissions, and even scanned the "spit-shaped" Oumuamua asteroid for signs of intelligent life. The radio telescope, however, experienced a major setback in 2011, when it had to switch off due to lack of funding. It was brought back online the following year with a donation from co-founder Franklin Antonio of Qualcomm.

Shostak said Allen never returned to the SETI Institute or Radio Telescope, which bears his name in the decade before his death. Nevertheless, Allen never lost interest in the project or the prospect of communicating with aliens.

"Scientists are optimistic because they think that if they have better instruments looking deeper or more frequencies, there should be civilizations out there," Allen said shortly afterwards in an interview with Discover Magazine the array began observations. "I think everyone would agree that it's a long shot, but when that long shot comes …"


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