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SETIcon II report

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sigblips
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SETIcon II was a magnificent event. It was two full days of panel discussions and fireside chats with interesting people related to the science of SETI. I had the opportunity to see Debra Fischer and Geoff Marcy,  two of my former college instructors, talk about exoplanets. Seth, Jill, Gerry, and Jon were also aboard talking about all things SETI. It was a great time. My only complaint was that there were too many interesting talks to choose from.

Here is my brief SETIcon II report about setiQuest related issues.

The registration station was handing out old copies of the glossy Explorer 2010 magazine (TeamSETI publication). Avinash Agrawal and Jill Tarter each had two-page articles where they talked about the TED prize and the birth of setiQuest. Reading both articles took me back to 2010 and they were a somber reminder to what could have been. ):

While SETI Live got the limelight, I did hear setiQuest mentioned several times but it was always in the past tense. In a panel talk jrseti reiterated that the SETI Institute under-estimated the internal resources that setiQuest required. While I agree that a lack of internal resources was a problem, I see it more as a symptom.  The root cause is that setiQuest was architected in such a manner that resources could be a problem in the first place!  The setiQuest project was designed so that the SETI Institute had to push things to setiQuest to keep it moving.  That was backwards, the project should of been architected such that setiQuest pulled the SETI Institute along. When you build a community it needs to be able to sustain itself and have its own purpose. These are two important aspects that setiQuest lacked. Internal resources should never of been an issue. We can fix these things if setiQuest 2.0 ever gets a chance ...

Jill Tarter mentioned a number of possible upgrades to the ATA that are in need of funding.  Improvements to the receiving feeds could double or triple the sensitivity of the existing dishes, total cost about $3M. The ATA can be expanded to its design capacity of 350 antennas for the cost of $180K - $200K per dish, total cost about $60M. Jill also talked about building multiple ATA's across the globe, particularly in the southern hemisphere which has a better view of the Galactic center, but that will require even more funds.

Gerry Harp, the new director of SETI Research, mentioned some of his plans for improving the search. Both Autocorrelation and using the correlator boards in a new way were discussed. They seem like great ideas but as any Silicon Valley entrepreneur will tell you, the most important part of success comes down to the implementation. It won't be easy. The details will be in the pudding as they say. I look forward to watching this next generation of SETI research boldly march into the future.

The biggest and most influential insight for me was all the people who attended SETIcon II. About 600 people paid a moderate amount of money and dedicated two days of their lives to attend SETIcon. These people care about science and are excited about the prospects of SETI.  I saw business cards trading hands after panel talks, new ideas being proposed, people wanting to help. I saw a massive potential of energy waiting to be harnessed. Why couldn't setiQuest tap this energy and imagination? Why couldn't setiQuest engage all these people and get them involved?  I don't know why.

a_feder
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I think this is true

"While I agree that a lack of internal resources was a problem, I see it more as a symptom.  The root cause is that setiQuest was architected in such a manner that resources could be a problem in the first place!  The setiQuest project was designed so that the SETI Institute had to push things to setiQuest to keep it moving.  That was backwards, the project should of been architected such that setiQuest pulled the SETI Institute along."

I think this is true. When Jill travels around asking for tens of millions of dollars for new telescopes, the question we need to keep asking is: why don't you use what you already have to its fullest possible extent? I don't think anyone who is asking for that kind of money can or should be taken serious if they can't answer this simple "household economics 101" question.

At the moment, SETILive seems to be their point of attention. The launch has come and gone, the 'follow-up' activation has come and gone, SETICon II has come and gone, and still the project is flatlining. So if their past behavior is anything to judge by, likely what will happen is that they will take the 3 million classifications due to media-induced spike activity, turn it into a mediocre scientific paper about a severely limited portion of the SETI search space and then use that as a stepping stone and sales argument to raise even more funds for some other harebrained experiment ad infinitum:

robackrman
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I believe we are still

I believe we are still waiting for the "mediocre scientific paper" which makes use of the setiQuest Explorer classification data that represents many hours of public participation.  A consequence of the SETI Institute's recent attempts to directly engage the public in the search for ET is that the public, from the increased exposure, might stop participating after concluding that the SETI Institute is not a good steward of their time and money.

a_feder
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Yep

Exactly. Which is particularly sad because people like Carl Sagan has put a lot of effort into creating the image that they are good stewards.

sigblips
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The SETI Institute is a good

The SETI Institute is a good steward. As I've said before, SETIcon II was a magnificent event and the weekly colloquiums at the SETI Institute are fantastic. If you can't catch a colloquium in person then I highly recommend watching one on YouTube.

As everyone knows, the SETI part of the SETI Institute is poorly funded. It takes money to do the ambitious things they want to do.  It takes money to sustain operations. It takes even more money to complete the ATA-350 by building 308 new dishes.

If you're interested in the new ATA feed then check out this great colloquium talk by Jack Welch:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-hiRlzLgKY

Being able to double or triple the sensitivity of the existing ATA dishes for a comparatively small amount of money makes good economic / fiscal sense to me.  This feed design may also be used with the SKA. My only concerns are if the actual performance will be as good as the experimental performance, the potential hazards of a large exploding glass bulb, and what are the long term maintenance issues of the additional vacuum machinery?

Now what is difficult is engaging all of the people who want to help SETI succeed. SetiQuest 1.0 didn't get it right and SETI Live isn't doing much better.  I'm not sure what the answer is but I think part of the problem is that setiQuest set the bar too low and SETI Live set it even lower.  Just look at the quality of conversation on the SETI Live talk pages. Analyzing signals is difficult. That's what I learned.

a_feder
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It takes honesty to attain money

It takes honesty to attain money. An arrogant, inefficient leadership out of funds is just a sign of the market working correctly.

robackrman
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There is something adorable

There is something adorable about the fact that this forum, no matter how lightly-trafficked, does at least have one fanboy.
 
Perhaps you can share with us how SETIcon II being "a magnificent event" – if that is the consensus – somehow translates into the SETI Institute being a good steward of the time and money of public contributors? Especially given my counterexamples (e.g., wasted effort of setiQuest Explorer participants).
 
Here is another counterexample: considering you mentioned this topic, you apparently are not aware that poor ATA feed mean-time-between-failure and sensitivity performance is the reason the ATA project fell far behind schedule and lost momentum; and is the reason that even today far short of the full 42 antennas at HCRO (with both linear polarizations at nominal system temperature) participate in the array when synthesizing beams for SETILive. ATA feeds are routinely shuttled back-and-forth between HCRO and the Bay Area for repair. The overall cost of the feeds has never properly, to my knowledge, been accounted for, but must be a significant chunk of the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent on the ATA so far.  This has been going on for years.  Based on the gap that exists between theory and implementation for the current feeds, and no coherent explanation for that gap, there is no reason to believe that the new feed design will perform as advertised.
 
There is something wrong that has never been identified (i.e., a significant gap between theory and actual performance) with the ATA feeds. In addition, ATA feeds that perform O.K. when tested for sensitivity in the lab do not exhibit similar performane when mounted in an ATA antenna. I developed a model while investigating an anomaly in the ATA antenna primary beam pattern referred to internally as the “Dog's Sunglasses”, and wrote a paper about it, which offers an explanation for why the feeds might under-perform when mounted in an ATA antenna: http://ackrman.net/seti/dogs-sunglasses/2009-01-28-ata-dish-model.pdf
 
An external investigation made by professional astronomers, reading this paper and considering other evidence, would likely ask if a full response pattern measurement of a current feed on a range has been done and a full beam pattern with the feed mounted in an ATA antenna has been done. The answer to both of those questions is no. I submit the lack of these tests represents a form of “malpractice.”  The reason a full beam pattern has not been done is because ATA antennas cannot physically point below 17 degrees when using a strong satellite on the geosynchronous belt as a point source. Someone would have to go through the effort to establish an experiment to track a strong point source (probably over multiple days with appropriate normalization) at higher elevation to make a full beam pattern. This effort is justified by hints that a strong sidelobe region might lie outside the partial beam patterns that have been done to date. (To clarify for some readers, when an antenna has strong unexpected side-lobes, it has less sensitivity than expected in the main pointing direction)
 
An interesting note (if you have read my paper linked above): in images of the ATA-like dishes proposed currently for the SKA, the feed is tucked inside the arm supporting the secondary with no view of the primary surface.
 
Knowing these new facts and given what you might suspect you still do not know (and there is plenty more), do you still think the SETI Institute has been a good steward of the money it was given to construct the ATA?  I suspect Paul Allen and his friends know some of the truth, otherewise, the SETI Institue and ATA probably would not currently have funding problems. In addition, is it justified to hand tens of millions of dollar to the SETI Institue to build a few hundred more copies of current ATA antennas that are underperforming and for which no proper investigation and fix for the reasons have been done? If the ATA were to be built out to the full 350 antennas, how many of the antennas, based on statistics for participation levels of the current 42 antennas, would be participating in the full array on any given day? Or, alternatively, how many millions-of-dollars-worth of antennas would not be participating in the full 350 antenna array on any given day due to broken feeds or effectively not participating due to less than nominal sensitivity?
 

sigblips
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a SETI-fanboy's reply

I take it that you don't appreciate my level of enthusiasm?

IMO the most influential thing Carl Sagan did for the field of SETI was his show Cosmos. A whole generation of kids got excited about science and the possibility of SETI because of that show. That's what the SETI Institute's colloquium series are and that is what SETIcon II was.  They educate, they excite, and they promote SETI.  I look forward to SETIcon III.

I was not aware of the ATA beam / feed issues you mentioned.  I have my own suspicions about the beamformer / sidelobe leakage performance and all those drifting-random-walks found in the setiQuest data. Yes Rob, you're correct, the ATA and the setiQuest project have a number of potential problems but despite this I'm trying to make the best of the situation.

So the ATA has some issues.  I see two options.  One is to carry on and be happy with the issues.  The other is to fix them and this will require money. Which is the better option?

I have a question for you Rob.  What do you think is required to fix the ATA beam / feed problems you mentioned?  How much do you think it would cost?
 

robackrman
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I agree.  COSMOS was an

I agree.  COSMOS was an outstanding series.  I have watched it multiple times.  I thought the segment on special relativity (with the kids riding the motor-scooters) was fantastic.

From having been inside the SETI Institute: the problem from my perspective is more culture than money (there was plenty of money available to properly build the first group of ATA antennas).  The lack of money now may be a symptom.

There is some hope with Gerry taking over for Jill that there might be some improvement in addressing some of the issues with the ATA and more openness to alternative search strategies.  I don't know, however, how he is plugged in (other than title) and what are his motivations.  He has not been particularly visible since the transition.

It appers to me from current trends, that an ET signal discovery in the radio regime, if that happens during the next decade or two, may well be done by a young, nimble, and innovative group possibly located outside of the United States.

Over the past two or three years, I have become more-and-more of an optical SETI enthusiast (convert), so am less interested in the radio projects.

sigblips
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Jack Welch's new ATA feed is

Jack Welch's new ATA feed is going to be built. Check out the press release http://www.seti.org/node/1500 and the press video.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXQEISXpdt0

The http://setistars.org page has been revamped for a new $1M fundraising effort called the "Communicate Campaign." The site mentions that the next SETICon is slated for June 2014.