After the recent passing of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, there was much coverage of the billionaire’s many notable accomplishments and activities – inventor, investor, philanthropist, private rocket builder, shipwreck hunter, brain researcher and owner of sports teams, yachts and an island. However, one major achievement that didn’t get much press was his early and substantial financial contributions to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). That’s right – the other half of the IBM side of the personal computer revolution was also a key member of the SETI revolution … and the evidence starts with the Allen Telescope Array, located in the Cascade Mountains in California.
“The chance that we are going to pick up the phone and an alien is going to be on the other end is small, but it is certainly worth—on a modest scale, for me—seeing if we can enable some of that research.”
In a 2007 interview with Discover magazine, Paul Allen describes how his interest in space and extraterrestrials began with the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, a little thing called software got in the way of that interest and Allen didn’t give it much thought until he had had made some of his billions and one day received a call from a fellow computer industry pioneer. According to Motherboard, Allen, along with Hewlett-Packard founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard and Intel founder Gordon Moore, received a call from Hewlett Packard laboratories founder Barney Oliver asking each to invest $5 million in Project Phoenix, which scanned for signals from 800 stars within 200-light years of Earth.
When Project Phoenix ended, astronomers interested in SETI designed a large array of radio telescopes and convinced Allen to contribute the $25 million (he later invested $5 million more) needed to build what became the Allen Telescope Array – the first array in the U.S. built specifically for SETI. While it has received 200 million signals from thousands of stars and recently scanned the Oumuamua intergalactic space rock, a definitive ET message hasn’t been identified yet. Despite that, Allen never lost his excitement for the search.
“That would be such a life-changing thing, for us all to know that there are other beings out there who we could potentially communicate with, or maybe we are listening to a signal that they transmitted hundreds of millennia ago.”
While Paul Allen had many other successes, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence wasn’t one of them. However, his quest lives on in the Allen Telescope Array. While we wait for a message, perhaps Allen has finally received it.