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In a country where some corporations do not pay taxes, millionaires get farm subsidies and a presidential candidate can run up a half-million-dollar tab at Tiffany's, we're deferring an attempt to answer one of our most enduring (and least inexpensive to answer) questions: Are we alone in the universe?

Certainly we don't cotton to the idea of being alone. We yearn for the big signal from the stars, the cosmic hail. When Stephen Hawking warns us against contacting E.T. because we might end up invaded by Klingons, we argue about it around the water cooler. We thrill to "Contact" and "District 9" and play video games featuring tentacled aliens. We tune in when Carl Sagan and Timothy Ferris explain outer space on TV.

Yet we're surprisingly unwilling to put our money where our imaginations want to roam.

News that the Allen Telescope Array is "hibernating" — a curiously biological term for shutting down 42 radio telescopes designed to listen for signs of life from other worlds — raises questions about our true commitment to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The National Science Foundation recently slashed the University of California's budgets for the Allen array by 90%. This, along with state cuts, has left UC Berkeley, which operates the Hat Creek, Calif., array in the Cascade Mountains, and the private SETI Institute, which conducts searches, in the lurch.

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Category: Science