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Longtime SETI Champion Franklin Antonio Dies

Longtime SETI Champion Franklin Antonio Dies

Franklin Antonio provided leadership, technical expertise, hands-on collaboration, curiosity and friendship that will drive the SETI Institute and the broader SETI community to explore the cosmos in new ways to search for technologically advanced civilizations beyond Earth.

Franklin Antonio
Franklin Antonio. Image Credit: UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering.

The SETI Institute is profoundly saddened by the news that supporter, friend and collaborator Franklin Antonio, co-founder of Qualcomm, has unexpectedly died. Antonio was passionate about advancing, expanding and improving SETI searches by developing state-of-the-art instrumentation, pushing for scientific observations and analyzing the data to refine instrumentation and search strategies. A longtime supporter of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), Antonio participated in working meetings, applying rigorous logic to challenge the team, sharing his knowledge and expertise and rolling up his sleeves to help solve problems and improve systems. Antonio was especially excited about the recent resumption of regular SETI observations at the ATA.

“Franklin was deeply passionate about and committed to SETI as an endeavor. With his background as co-founder of Qualcomm, he believed that SETI was not an astronomy question, but a communications question,” said Bill Diamond, President & CEO of the SETI Institute. “He was brilliant, energetic, hard-driving and could always be counted on to be on-hand at meetings, debating, cajoling, encouraging, challenging and inspiring. Franklin will be deeply missed by all of us and by the SETI community broadly and by his many friends and colleagues at Qualcomm and the UC San Diego community.”

The team running the ATA is small and tightknit, and will miss him, both professionally and personally. He was tough but fair in evaluating the work and experiments, always willing to educate astronomers about instrumentation and radio communications and focused on his efforts to help the team succeed.

“Franklin Antonio’s tragic passing is a truly incalculable loss for the SETI community,” said Andrew Siemion, Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute. “In addition to his incredible financial generosity, Franklin enthusiastically shared his wealth of knowledge and experience in engineering, physics and leadership. We are all better scientists and people for having had the chance to work together with him. Though we must now walk a difficult path forward without Franklin, his passion and alacrity for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence will echo and resonate long into the future.”

Antonio has been a longtime collaborator with the SETI Institute, and previously funded upgrades to the backend feeds of the ATA, known as the Antonio feeds, in 2015. In addition to vital financial support, Antonio is a core member of the ATA science and engineering team, offering invaluable advice, insights, and future vision, participating in meetings and digging in to help the team get work done. Antonio was also a supporter of the SETI Institute’s LaserSETI program designed to scan the all the sky, all the time for extrasolar laser pulses.

"The ATA was a visionary design built a decade ago,” said Antonio in 2019. "It was designed to grow in capability as digital signal processing advanced. Taking advantage of this requires ongoing sources of funding.   Too often, government and institutional funding sources have aimed at constructing new facilities rather than supporting and advancing existing ones. It's time now for a bit of an ATA technology upgrade. The ATA was designed to be especially good at what the astronomers call 'surveys'  -- astronomy lingo for an experiment where you don't know where to look. Although SETI is the classic survey science, astronomers routinely use survey techniques to study other phenomena because we don't know where in the sky ET might be hiding. An example that has recently received much press is the search for fast radio bursts (FRBs). One of the goals of this upgrade is to allow more kinds of astronomical surveys to operate side-by-side with ATA's primary SETI mission, leading to more collaborative engagements between the ATA and other institutions. By the way, funding science is fun. I urge others to give it a try."

Details about Antonio’s death are not yet available; he was 69 years old. He was a private person but is remembered fondly for his professional achievements, philanthropy, and friendship. “One of my favorite pastimes in SETI meetings with Franklin was to try and make him laugh out loud at least once per meeting, and usually, I was successful at that,” said Diamond. “It was always hugely rewarding to see him break into a huge grin and give a laugh at some silly crack of mine.” Antonio was known to keep cans of Coca-Cola in his car that he would drink warm, tossing the empties in the back seat. But most gratifying was when he initially dismissed an idea but then listened to the logic behind it, and if that logic was sound, acknowledging so.

Franklin Antonio was co-founder of Qualcomm, where he served as Chief Scientist Emeritus. He held 378 granted and pending patents worldwide. In addition to supporting the ATA, Antonio was also a generous supporter of his alma mater, UC San Diego, funding SETI endeavors such as PANOSETI and the new Franklin Antonio Hall at its Jacob School of Engineering.



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