More About SETI

Yes, I have a job searching for signs of alien intelligence throughout the universe. This is a scientific pursuit – it has nothing to do with UFOs, Area 51, X-Files, etc.. Commonly this field is referred to as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). SETI is a field of research like biology or physics. You don’t “work for SETI” just like you don’t “work for chemistry.”

Lately there has been much discussion within the field about rebranding the whole thing as the search for technosignatures, because that’s basically what we are all doing: looking for any signs of technology, which could therefore assume intelligent beings created said technology. This also helps get around the quagmire of trying to define “intelligence.” But until “the search for extraterrestrial technosignatures” becomes a thing, I still refer to the whole pursuit as SETI.

Have you found anything?

This is always the first question. The short answer is: nope.

The longer answer is: our ability to find needles in the cosmic haystack has improved exponentially over the past few decades. When I started working on SETI projects we’d print out final data sets from years of research and fit them in a single binder. Now we able to collect a petabyte (i.e. 1000 terabytes) of data every day. Still, we haven’t uncovered any alien transmissions. Honestly it’ll be a lot better when we get a telescope on the far side of the moon, away from all the human radio frequency interference from cell towers and satellites littering our data.

Before you get sad, a nice bonus of collecting so much astronomical data is that we have found and done tangential research regarding various sources of natural phenomena. We are also pushing the leading edges of supercomputing research. And when I started working in this field the existence of planets around other stars was only a theory, but now it’s common knowledge, with scientific evidence, that Earth-like planets are pretty much everywhere. The whole game is getting easier and more focused over time.

Well if you found any aliens would you even tell us?

Once again: this isn’t the X-files or whatever. Of course we’d tell you after doing the rigirous science to back up our findings. Remember the Sagan Standard that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Honestly, there have been a few occasions where something popped up in our data sets that initially raised an eyebrow or two, but upon diving deeper ended up clearly being random noise, instrumental error, or interference from our own human technology.

Not convinced? Remember that in order to properly verify whatever results we find would involve using telescope facilities around the planet, i.e. it would be an international endeavor. Imagine trying to keep anything a secret when you have thousands of scientists around the globe noticing that the dishes are all pointing at the same spot in the sky.

Still not convinced? Well, let me assure you I want my share of the Nobel prize. You don’t get money unless you publish the results. So if we find anything, we will let you know.

So do you work at the SETI Institute?

Nope. Of course the whole field of “SETI” is conflated with “The SETI Institute” as if they are the only game in town. The book/movie Contact reinforces this false notion, as does a lot of lazy journalism. In fact, while the Institute has done some notable projects, the greatest hub of SETI activity on our planet is where I work, which is the Berkeley SETI Research Center (BSRC) located at the University of California at Berkeley. The BSRC is responsible for the world’s largest volunteer computing project SETI@home, and currently what is by far the largest SETI project to date: Breakthrough Listen. We also help advise and encourage many similar projects at universities all over the planet, including those at the SETI Institute. Nevertheless journalists still keep calling up the more famous people at the Institute for expert opinions instead of us, thus continuing the false narrative that the SETI Institute is the only game in town. I have a bad attitude about this, as confused people donated many dollars to the Institute thinking they were funding SETI@home. Sorry to drill this point home, but I’m aiming to be totally true here.

Nevertheless, we work collegially with the good folks at the Institute. In fact, the BSRC team is currently managing the continued development and scientific use of the Institute’s Alley Telescope Array. It’s been largely a healthy relationship – most of my beef is about public misconceptions and those who lazily amplify them. And none of what I’m saying above should reflect negatively with the amazing, and better known, scientists affiliated with the Institute, who I deeply respect. It’s not their fault they keep getting the spotlight.

What messages are you sending to the aliens?

The act of messaging extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) is controversial, and BSRC does not partake in METI – we only listen. People who are pro-METI claim we’ve been leaking noise into the universe for 100 years already, so there’s no harm in adding an intentional message to our din. A common reason to be anti-METI is the “dark forest” theory, i.e. you wouldn’t want to shout into an unfamiliar jungle.

Speaking only for myself, I find METI to be somewhat arrogant. Who gets to speak for the whole planet? Who gets to decide on the contents of the message? While I find some of the messages already transmitted into space to be somewhat clever or elegant, there’s potentially stupid or dangerous stuff being thrown out there that the bulk of humanity might vote down given the chance.

Also some METI enthusiasts think transmitting techno music into space is some sort of message to the universe that we are of advanced intelligence. If I were an alien musicologist hearing a bunch of techno coming from Earth, I’d assume the inhabitants were either (a) a Borg-like collective or (b) a bunch of yahoos who fetishize the Borg. In either case, clearly something to be avoided or destroyed.

So how did you get this job?

The presumption, of course, is that working in the SETI field is some kind of elite, exciting, glamorous job for which only the most brilliant nerds qualify and requires some kind of rigorous security clearance, or mental stability test, or whatever. This isn’t the case at all – it’s just a garden-variety data analysis project just like any of the zillions at universities all over the world. Anyway.. maybe the following will clear things up. Young people: don’t try this at home – follow your own random path.

I was a computer geek of the nth degree as a young man, steeped in machine language coding every night for hours on end, but kinda grew bored with it all during college. I also got disillusioned by how the world was adopting Windows more and more, while my beloved Amiga was falling by the wayside. So I wasn’t exactly seeking work in the field with much verve by the end of my senior year.

Shortly after graduating I moved to California with absolutely no friends, no money, and no plans whatsoever. I’m a huge proponent of “making your luck,” i.e. throwing myself head first into random, difficult situations and seeing what happens. Finding steady work was hard. I was competing with MIT and Stanford nerds for pre-dot-com jobs so that went nowhere. After random stints in various offices and six hellish months in the ad business I found myself jobless yet again. I applied as a temporary employee at UC Berkeley just to get some quick bucks. I never heard back, so I followed up with a call two weeks later. I misread the phone book entry and mistakenly called the director of temporary services himself, and he happened to be around and answered his phone. Luckily he wasn’t busy and proceeded to look up my application. Seeing I had computer skills, he said a position just opened at the Space Science Lab that morning. I lied and said I was an expert at troff/LaTeX. I went to work the following Monday. Moral of the story: it’s easy to get your foot in the door as a temporary employee, especially if you accidentally call the wrong number and then exaggerate about your skills.

I became a member of the Space Astrophysics Group (a.k.a SAG) which was a set of disparate projects that shared scientists and staff. The main projects at the time were EUVE, EUVIP, ORFEUS, and SERENDIP III – the last being an early foray into SETI. I held a mostly administrative role – I helped format papers and proposals, monitor/database purchasing and accounts, and help one completely computer illiterate scientist send/receive e-mails. Not very exciting, but it was steady work. This was February 1994.

A mere few months later my supervisor up and quit. It’s a long story – let’s just say the circumstances were unusual, and these circumstances include the words “Venezuela,” “surgery,” and “ten thousand dollars.” I was promoted into her spot and became a full-time employee. I also got her office. Sweet.

One day was particularly dull so I started snooping around the network – nothing malicious, just curiosity. Jeff Cobb (SERENDIP programmer and SAG systems administrator at the time) immediately noticed me issuing “sudo” commands on his servers. Oops. He asked if I knew what I was doing, and once aware of my former life as a computer geek he asked for my assistance doing network backups and software installs. I accepted these tasks, and even got called on to do some SETI-specific analysis chores. Moral of the story: snooping around your own network is a great way to flaunt your abilities and interests to your supervisors and get more fun stuff to do.

Due to a huge oversight I managed to have one of the best offices in the lab for over a year. That is, until the director of the ORFEUS project (Dr. Mark Hurwitz) came in one day with measuring tape saying, “don’t mind me.” He then proceeded to take notes about the room’s dimensions. Within a couple weeks I found myself displaced into the carrels next to the printer and fax machine. Mark is a really nice and brilliant guy, so I didn’t begrudge him his own office, which he certainly deserved more than I. However, I was perfectly healthy for years up to this point and now my new desk was situated under this giant vent. Over the next six months I got an equal number of nasty sinus infections. I demanded a building inspector come and check out this vent. Despite my recent health record and the layers of dust and dead flies on my desk, the inspector insisted my chronic sinus infections must be due to something else. I was sufficiently annoyed by this and the lack of career advancement opportunities so I quit. That was December 1996.

I enjoyed a half year off working on music, touring the country, and slowly draining my bank account. During that time I offered infrequent yet free tech support to my former lab workmates. Right around the time I ran out of money they called asking me to come back. I said I would if I could be rehired as a Programmer/Analyst and work flexible hours. They agreed. Moral of the story: quitting a job is a great way to get a long vacation, followed by a handsome raise and promotion.

Now that I was doing primarily systems stuff, I was working directly with Jeff, sharing lab space with him and SERENDIP director Dan Werthimer. Due to proximity I ended up primarily working on SETI, helping to wrap up the final data analysis of the SERENDIP III project and ramp up SERENDIP IV. Meanwhile SETI@home was coming into being (Summer 1997). The remaining SAG projects (and their funds) were waning, so they didn’t mind so much that all of my time was being spent on SETI. By the end of 1998, the SETI@home buzz generated enough funding to hire me full time, and that’s basically the whole story.