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.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags astronomySETI@home

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service
Show Comments


James Cook University - Master of Data Science Online Course

Learn more >


Sansai 6-Outlet Power Board + 4-Port USB Charging Station

Learn more >

Victorinox Werks Professional Executive 17 Laptop Case

Learn more >



Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?