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TED Prize: Searching for life in the Universe February 15, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
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One of the winners of the annual TED prize, announced at the organisation’s annual conference in Long Beach last week, is astronomer Dr. Jill Tarter, Director of the SETI Institute in California. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a kind of super-club of creative minds from those fields set up in 1984 who meet a few times  year to discuss Big Ideas.

There’s a lot of lofty rhetoric involved and they could easily be accused of being a kind of elitist international country club for geeks. But I think there’s more to it: talks from the TED conference are made freely available at their website for everyone to watch and there is some genuinely good stuff there: originality,creativity, and an awareness of and concern for global issues. TED talks have been viewed online more than 100 million times and translated into 25 languages. Many of TED’s ‘Brain Trustees’ have impressive track records in turning innovative ideas into success -Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Craig Venter, Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins are just a few of the names on their list.

The TED prizes are awarded annually to three of these creative minds, who get a $100,000 cheque and $1 million in support funding, as well as opportunity to tap the networks and resources of the powerful TED community, to help realise “One Wish to Change the World”. Dr. Tarter’s wish for changing our world is to “ empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.”

The search for extraterrestrial civilisations, and astronomy in general, has of course long inspired some of the world’s great minds with deep pockets. The Allen Telescope Array, SETI’s flagship observatory, was funded with a $29 million grant from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. In 2008, several large telescope projects (here, here) received sizeable grants from wealthy individuals.

What struck me about reading through the description of Dr. Tarter’s wish is how much of it touches on the ideas that were discussed at last year’s .Astronomy meeting, though on a very different scale. Launched in 1999, SETI was of course one of the world’s pioneering citizen science projects with its SETI@home initiative, raising an amazing public awareness for its mission. If SETI could achieve this with 1999’s technology, the potential for a great idea with funding, enthusiastic minds and the endless possibilities offered by the web today must surely be huge? That’s why we want to organise a follow-up to .Astronomy in 2009. Watch this space!

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