Letters

SETIng the Record Straight
I read with interest Matt Smith's recent article ("Heavenly Secrets," April 1) on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and was pleased that Mr. Smith captured so much of the excitement of our project.

Unfortunately, the article is riddled with mistakes, and Mr. Smith's concatenation of these errors has led him to a faulty conclusion, namely that somehow "NASA researchers ... outfoxed Congress," and by so doing, managed to keep spending taxpayers' dollars on a program that was no longer publicly funded.

This is not true. Smith claims that the NASA SETI project was halted twice, in 1992 and 1993. It wasn't. It was canceled by a Senate amendment in the fall of 1993. He states that a $600,000 recorder was purchased by NASA after the program's cancellation with the specific intention of loaning it to the SETI Institute, and that the institute used "a subtle accounting maneuver" to divert a million dollars of NASA money annually to SETI. These untrue claims are belied by the author's own statements on the same page that "the Office of Inspector General said in a follow-up report that NASA appears to have stopped all funding of the search for space aliens," and that the "maneuver doesn't cost NASA a cent."

Of the 89 paragraphs that constitute Mr. Smith's piece, I counted 34 that contained errors of fact. Some of these are relatively innocuous, such as the occasional change in name of Jill Tarter to Jane, or the suggestion that the Soviets were doing SETI before the American Frank Drake. Others are merely the result of sloppiness, such as the tantalizing report that some recently discovered extrasolar planets are "estimated to be near the size and temperature of Earth," or the fact that most of the titles, positions, and areas of expertise ascribed to SETI Institute staff are incorrect. Finally, I must confess that a few of Smith's gaffes are intriguing, such as the remarkable claim that "each time the speed of Silicon Valley microprocessors doubles ... so does the size of the observable universe."

The dates are wrong. The chronology is wrong. The science is wrong. It is not surprising that Mr. Smith's peculiar charge of nefarious maneuvering is also wrong. I am dismayed by SF Weekly's willingness to turn good science into science fiction.

Dr. Seth Shostak
SETI Institute
Via Internet

Matt Smith responds: In large part, Dr. Shostak asserts mistakes where there are none.

The 1993 NASA authorization bill, which deleted funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), was signed into law in November 1992, according to the Congressional Record. Legislation passed in 1993 reiterated Congress' intention to end SETI funding -- as I wrote.

The inspector general's report that criticizes NASA for continuing to spend money for SETI after Congress ordered a spending cutoff includes agency memos showing that the data recorder in question was purchased with the specific intention of using it for SETI -- as my article states.

The fashion in which NASA currently routes about $1 million in infrastructure expenses to the SETI Institute while not costing the agency a cent is made clear in the article.

The article says that during the 1960s, "the Soviet Union led the field" of SETI research. And, in fact, the bulk of SETI projects during the 1960s, and the vast majority of SETI spending, was Soviet, according to SETI Institute documents and SETI Institute researchers. Contrary to Dr. Shostak's assertion, the article made no claim as to whether Soviet SETI projects preceded Dr. Drake's.

As the article explains, most of the extrasolar planets discovered by researchers in San Francisco and Switzerland apparently are huge and searingly hot. Some, however, appear to be less than half Jupiter's size. Much of the initial excitement about recent extrasolar planetary discoveries can be traced to S.F. researcher Geoff Marcy's announcement at a January 1996 press conference that the temperature of planets he has discovered may be in the range that would allow water to exist.

Finally, the claim that each time the speed of Silicon Valley microprocessors doubles, so does the size of the observable universe -- that is to say, the amount of the universe SETI researchers are able to study thanks to increased computational power -- is not remarkable at all.

Editor's Note: Because of an editing error, the name of Jill Tarter was mistakenly changed on one reference to "Jane Tarter." SF Weekly regrets the error.

Good Job
I have clipped and am framing "Vanishing Acts" (Mecklin, April 8).
Also, please accept praise for the very fascinating Matt Smith piece on Yogesh Gandhi ("Here Today, Gandhi Tomorrow?" Bay View, April 8). Very clear, great tracking, hangs together perfectly.

Doug Hayward
Oakland

 
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