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Waiting for E.T. to Phone

3 minute read
Chris Taylor

The way I see it, there are only two things you really need in life: a way to improve our lot on Earth, and a cool computer screensaver. Now I’ve got both, thanks to SETI@home, a nifty piece of software that searches for intelligent life in the universe whenever I’m away from my desk. The program, available for free at setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu is the brainchild of SETI scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, who have been scanning the skies for E.T.’s radio signals for more than 20 years.

Now they need our help. The universe, after all, is a very noisy place. It takes a lot of raw computing power to find the wheat in all that extraterrestrial chaff, and with budget cuts and all, SETI can’t afford the computers it needs to do the job. That’s where your humble home (or office) PC comes in. Download its software over the Internet, and SETI central at Berkeley will send chunks of data for your machine to process. Amateur astro-geeks everywhere are pitching in. In the two weeks SETI@home has been available, more than 390,000 users have signed up.

It’s one of the most elegant displays of the power of the Internet to be harnessed for what experts call distributed computing. “The largest supercomputer you can buy has 9,000 Pentium processors in it,” says SETI@home director David Anderson. If everyone who has downloaded his program uses it, he points out, “we have what’s equivalent to a box with 400,000 Pentiums in it.”

Fine. But what I really yearn for, as I watch the beautifully rendered 3-D graph that sprints across my screen in flickering blues, purples and reds, is a Jodie Foster moment. In the movie Contact, you may remember, Foster plays a frustrated SETI scientist who stumbles across an alien radio signal. That’s how I see it happening to me: I’ll be slumped over my desk in the Time & Life Building, struggling with another bout of writer’s block, when all that random noise will suddenly transform itself into a smooth undulating wave.

My hopes were deflated by Dan Wertheimer, head of the SETI project, who advised me not to hold my breath. The picture on my screen, it turns out, represents a mere 107 sec. of data from 1 millionth of the night sky. My chances of winning the galactic lottery are about 1 in 100 million–assuming there is any prize to be won.

But even if we are alone in the universe, the online hunt seems to be bringing together folks down here, from kindergartners to CEOs. By tracking who’s processed what data, SETI@home has sparked a friendly rivalry to be No. 1. Microsoft, Oracle and Sun are just a few of the firms caught up in this macho space race. And as Anderson suggests, there are any number of other large scientific undertakings that could adopt the SETI model. Maybe someday my idle PC will be helping map the human genome or find a cure for cancer. Hey, it’s the least I can do.

–By Chris Taylor

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