What do Gordon Moore, William Hewlett, Paul Allen and Sandy Lerner have in common? Of course the easy answer is that they all co-founded famous high tech companies - Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Cisco respectively.
The more difficult answer is that they are all using their millions to fund the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute which was established, it says, to answer the question "Are we alone in the Universe?"
This week the SETI Institute, situated in Mountain View in the heart of Silicon Valley, is beginning a campaign, "to raise awareness of the importance of our mission among the public," said Greg Klerkx, the Institute's director of development.
Raising that awareness should translate into more donations, which the Institute needs as it received its last government funding back in 1993. Since then it has survived and, to some extent prospered on private donations as well as carrying out specific projects for likes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The Institute (www.seti.org) is trying to establish a $100 million endowment to ensure that the "searching" can continue as long as necessary. It has just hired Silicon Valley ad agency, San Jose-based Elliott|Dickens to assist it in making contact with more people here on earth.
The agency's task is to build awareness of the Institute's work in particular, the search for extraterrestrial life in general, and to facilitate fundraising.
The agency plans a communications program that will include print, television, and interactive media such as banners, Web sites, and email newsletters and campaigns.
After the success of movies such as Independence Day and Contact, the Institute believes there are many people interested in its endeavours.
It is best known for the Project Phoenix search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This uses the world's largest telescopes - 40 to 300 metres in diameter - situated in the US, Australia and Puerto Rico to systematically examine sun-like stars in space for artificially produced signals.
Other projects include the Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations (SERENDIP) being carried out at University of California. Scientists use specialised circuitry, matching the processing speeds of 200 supercomputers, and specialised software, search 168 million channels of astronomical data simultaneously in the search for extraterrestrial life.
There could be real-world applications derived from SETI research. One Silicon Valley start-up, Raycer Graphics, is developing a 3-D chip set, employing a sorting algorithm originally developed for SETI.
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