|Brian Glanz is an open knowledge advocate based in Seattle, with special interests in open science, government, journalism, and education. Find more at @brianglanz, +BrianGlanz, or brianglanz.com.|
|Thoughts about SETI and SETI@home|
|When the United States Senate effectively shut down SETI in 1993, it was all-too similar to what Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan described in "Contact," the book and film. In Contact, scientist Ellie Arroway had to raise private funding for SETI after losing government and public support. |
As journalist Keay Davidson observed of SETI's real-life failure in the Senate, "The whole episode illustrated one of Carl's oldest fears - that poor science education would create a society unable to distinguish between scientific exploration and pseudoscientific flummery."
Soon after that setback however, in 1994 SETI@home's conception occurred, just down the street from where my wife and I now live in Seattle. Locals Paul Allen, Nathan Myhrvold, and the University of Washington were among the supporters who had kept SETI running.
That same year I left the Seattle area to attend Cornell and in my first semester, I played a bit part in Carl Sagan's 60th birthday party. As the party was winding down, Carl gave a few of us students his "pale blue dot" schpiel and put SETI in a promising light. He mentioned the political reality, but after listening to Carl, you would be forgiven if you thought the Senate had just doubled SETI funding instead of cutting them off.
I walked away wondering about SETI and publicly funded science. Being an undergrad, what I could do? Sure I would sign a petition or write letters and I did a bit of both, but "use my own computers to share SETI's workload" or "use the Web to recruit more people to contribute," I had not yet imagined. Yet it was at that moment exactly, back home in Seattle with a spark from Ithaca, that work had commenced to make SETI@home possible.
A year or two later, Sagan left Ithaca for Seattle, to fight for his life against a rare cancer. In the semester he died fighting, I sat in the Astronomy 202 course he was scheduled to teach. It was a small, undergrad class called "Our Home in the Solar System." Carl had gone beyond any professor's duties, being generous with his time even at the end of his life. We honored him by discussing SETI, the origins of life, exobiology, and how public participation in science could improve public understanding and science itself.
By the time I was out of Cornell and working in an Internet start-up, the tide had turned. The classic SETI@home screen saver had become a global phenomenon. Running it on all our machines was part of the general exuberance. It felt like the world was coming together, building a shared future, and anyone could get involved. I realize now that most people in the world did not even have Internet access at the time, but we were on the right path.
SETI@home meant that amazing science, with which everybody could connect, was on the march. We had lost Sagan but SETI@home marched in his stead.
The Cornell-SETI-Seattle connections are many. In 1997, a year after Sagan had died, the Council for Media Integrity named the Candle in the Dark Award in his honor. The first winner was Bill Nye the Science Guy, himself both a Cornellian and Seattleite.
I was based in Ithaca, New York for ten years before moving back to Seattle with my wife and family. Seattle has many unique intersections of science, technology, and humanism that make it home for my work in Open Science.
Running SETI@home, now through BOINC and kin like the World Community Grid, are among the least we and anyone else with a computer can do. I have joined my SETI and WCG contributions to the International High IQ Society teams, and I encourage BOINC users in general to join teams. It adds to the excitement, reward, and production.
Said Nathan Myhrvold: "I have no idea whether alien civilizations exist, I have no idea if we'll find them in our lifetime -- but if they existed, and if we found them, it would be cool as hell!"
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