Uproar over E.T. hunter misplaced, SETI@home founder says

Now an executive at Microsoft, the project's founder said the real science behind the project is being overlooked

The school superintendent investigating a former employee who ran the SETI@home program on school computers doesn’t understand how the technology works or that the project is well-respected, experts in the technology field say.

Some also say that her estimates for how much money this incident will cost the school district sound inflated.

Superintendent Denise Birdwell in Higley, Arizona, recently announced that the school district’s director of IT, Brad Niesluchowski, resigned after the district discovered that he had installed software for the SETI@home project on the school district’s computers.

Started in 1999, SETI@home was one of the first initiatives to harness unused computing time on personal computers around the world, essentially creating a distributed supercomputer. The computing power is used to analyze large amounts of data generated from radio telescopes.

The program is looking for narrow-bandwidth radio signals, which are not known to occur naturally and might offer evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Birdwell dismissed the program as one without any educational value. “We support educational research and we certainly would have supported cancer research; however, as an educational institution we cannot support the search of E.T.,” Birdwell said in a news conference, part of which was included in a news video online.

“I take issue with that quote,” said David Gedye, now group manager for Microsoft’s Live Labs and the founder of the SETI@home project. “This is real science. Sure, it’s science that’s captivating to the public, that’s exactly why SETI was the first and most successful of these volunteer projects,” he said.

SETI@home volunteers aren't the only people interested in examining radio signals from space, he noted. Leading scientists around the world analyze radio astronomy data looking for anything currently not understood, he said. "They're generating great scientific results as a by-product of looking for signals that are not expected. That's real science," he said.

Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, has spent tens of millions of dollars building the Allen Telescope Array, a group of satellites used in radio astronomy projects and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This year the high-profile Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference awarded one of its three US$100,000 awards to Jill Tarter, an astronomer working on a collaborative effort like SETI@home.

In addition, the BOINC software developed to support the SETI project is now supported by the National Science Foundation and is used to run volunteer distributed computing projects around fighting malaria and global warming, among others.

“I’m disappointed that this is being written off as not worthy because we went to big efforts to make sure the science behind it was strong,” Gedye said.

Another well-known technologist who is not directly involved in the project is also critical of Birdwell’s comments. “Unfortunately it says a lot about people who are theoretically educating our children,” said Dave Farber, distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy in the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

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