Clive Cookson

I’ve just met one of my scientific heroes, Frank Drake.

He started the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – SETI – 50 years ago when he pointed a large radio-telescope in West Virginia at the nearby star Tau Ceti and listened for any radio signals that might be coming our way from an alien civilisation based on a planet orbiting the star.

Of course SETI has not heard a clear peep from ET over the past half-century, despite listening to thousands of stars with technology far more sophisticated than anything available to the young Drake in 1960.

But enthusiasts are not discouraged – far from it. The discovery of hundreds of “extrasolar” planets over the past few years has reinvigorated the search.

This week Drake, aged 79 and still working on SETI, was in London for a discussion about extraterrestrial life at the Royal Society.

At a meeting with science journalists, it was clear that the sliver-haired astronomer is as convinced as ever that detectable civilisations are out there – about 10,000 in our Milky Way galaxy, he estimates, making reasonable assumptions about the various unknowns in his famous Drake equation for estimating the chances for hearing from ET.

There are at least 100bn stars in the Milky Way, so just one in 10m has a detectable civilisation, according to Drake. Although that means a lot more searching, the technology continues to improve rapidly. And, as Drake says, SETI can now work hand in hand with the new planet-hunting telescopes such as Nasa’s Kepler, so that astronomers will be able to listen for signals from Earth-like planets as soon as they are discovered.

So far SETI has relied mainly on radio-telescopes but an alternative, just coming into operation, would look for short but incredibly powerful bursts of light from alien lasers, producing coded flashes that would outshine their parent star for an instant.

“In the universe elsewhere there is intelligent life. I’m confident about that but how easy it is to find we don’t know,” Drake says. How wonderful it would be if we made contact in his lifetime.

By Joseph Milton, FT science intern

Lord Drayson, science minister, may consider restructuring one of the government’s largest science and technology funding agencies after it was forced to withdraw 25 per cent of its studentships and fellowships following budget cuts.

In 2010-11 the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will have to survive on £20m less than the current year’s budget, and it has also been hit hard by currency fluctuations.

The devaluation of the pound has meant that subscriptions to international organisations, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), account for a much larger proportion of the STFC’s budget for next year – around 50 per cent of the total. But the council feels that membership of these organisations is worth the money spent.

The results for other areas funded by the STFC will include the 25 per cent cut in funding for researchers, and the end of a number of science projects based in the UK.

Nuclear physics was hit particularly hard, but astronomy, particle physics and space science will also have to absorb cuts. The STFC proposed “managed withdrawals” from a number of existing scientific ventures.

Scientists were dismayed by the news. Paddy Regan, a nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey, said the cuts “have the potential to kill off the UK skills base in nuclear physics…To have this at a time when the UK is discussing a nuclear new build programme… is almost comical.”

The STFC is a strangely structured beast. It was formed in 2007 through a merger of two other research councils which dealt with particle physics and astronomy, and also took responsibility for nuclear physics from a third council.

It is responsible for funding research students and fellows in these areas, as well as maintaining UK scientific facilities such as ISIS – a pulsed neutron and muon source – and the Central Laser Facility, both in Oxfordshire, and for paying subscription charges for memberships of international organisations.

Because the value of the pound is completely beyond the control of the council, and because it is understandably keen to retain membership of international organisations, devaluation will inevitably lead to the areas it can control, such as studentships, losing out disproportionately.

Lord Drayson said that he was keen to find a way round the cuts in a press release issued today in response to the STFC budget announcements, but he is very unlikely to be able to come up with any more money.

Instead he seems to be proposing a restructuring: “There are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single research council,” he says, and adds, “I will work urgently with the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.”

That suggests that the STFC’s days, at least in its current form, may be numbered.

Clive Cookson

Beware December 21, 2012.

That warning comes from Sky & Telescope, the renowned US astronomy magazine.

The cover story of its November issue offers astronomers a 2012 survival kit. Not because Sky & Telescope editors believe anything terrible will happen then but because they want to prepare their readers for the latest end-of-the-world scare.

“As we approach 2012, more and more professional and amateur astronomers are being asked about the doomsday scenario, so we want to help educate them, so they can inform the general public,” says Sky &
Telescope Editor in Chief Robert Naeye.

Every week, more people are coming to believe that all sorts of apocalyptic events will happen on 21/12/12 (or 12/21/12 in American notation). Continents will break apart and slide into the sea, a secret monster planet will smash into Earth out of nowhere, and so on.

As the magazine says, it’s all thanks to a spectacular blend of bad astronomy, bad Mayan ethnography, several popular books, and spreading internet hysteria. Confusingly, it all sounds like it’s based on science.

The hysteria will increase when the disaster movie “2012” opens next month. Its slogan is: “Find out the truth.”

An article by E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, explains that the doomsday predictions started with a misreading of the Mayan calendar.

If you believe what you hear, he writes, “the ancient Maya of Mexico and Guatemala kept a calendar that is about to roll up the red carpet of time, swing the solar system into transcendental alignment with the heart of the Milky Way, and turn Earth into a bowling pin for a rogue planet heading down our alley for a strike.”

Some modern readings of inscriptions at Mayan archaeological sites suggest that an important time cycle will end on the day they called and we know as December 21,2012, Krupp says. But there is little evidence that the Maya themselves associated this with Armageddon in the alarmist modern sense.

So if you hear any 2012 drivel, you know how to refute it.

Clive Cookson

The coming week is going to be crucial for space astronomy.

On Monday the shuttle Atlantis is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral with seven astronauts, on Nasa’s fifth and last mission to service the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

Then on Thursday it will be the European Space Agency‘s turn. An unmanned Ariane 5 rocket will send two new observatories costing a total of €1.9bn, Herschel and Planck, into space.

Hubble is the most famous and successful telescope of modern times. It has sent back to Earth a stunning series of images of distant stars and galaxies, which have enabled astronomers to calculate the age of our universe (13.7bn years), estimate the speed at which it is flying apart and examine planets around other stars, among many other things.

The final servicing mission, costing $1bn, will replace some instruments on Hubble, mend others and replace batteries and gyros – extending its working life for at least five years. It is the most difficult mission undertaken by the shuttle, because it goes higher into orbit than routine flights to the International Space Station and involves more intricate space walks.

While Hubble looks at objects in the visible regions of the spectrum, Herschel and Planck operate at much longer wavelengths, which are not detectable by our eyes.

Although the pair are sharing a ride on Ariane 5, they are independent observatories.

Herschel will observe at a region of the spectrum, known as far infrared and submillimeter, that has until now been neglected by astronomers. This should enable it to see through dust and gas, which obscure observations at other wavelengths, to see stars and galaxies in their early stages of development.

Planck is designed to examine in greater detail than any previous instrument the “cosmic microwave background” radiation, left over from the Big Bang 13.7bn years ago. Cosmologists hope it will show them how an initial period of unbelievably rapid expansion laid down the patterns of stars and galaxies we see today – and help to explain mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.