- SAN FRANCISCO -- There is good news for interstellar explorers. The search
for intelligent alien life somewhere in the cosmos is about to get a lot
easier -- almost as easy as getting e-mail from E.T.
- Soon you will be able to join the search
for life forms in outer space from the comfort of your home in your pajamas.
All you need is a home computer and an Internet link.
- Project managers say about 120,000 people
have already registered for the project, ranging from a 12-year-old in
the Philippines to Silicon Valley computer professionals. Scientists at
the University of California-Berkeley devised the plan to involve ordinary
people around the world in the hunt for alien intelligence. Using home
computers and the Internet, they hope to build a gigantic global "brain"
to analyze interstellar radio signals for signs of life.
- Who knows? The old clunker you once played
"Space Invaders" on could be the computer that finally downloads
hard evidence of real extraterrestrials.
- "We might get a million people involved
in this project," said Dan Werthimer, an astronomer at Berkeley's
Space Sciences Laboratory who is helping to run the project. "Everybody
is curious, everybody wants to know if there is life out there. This is
a neat way of letting them participate in the hunt."
- Long a staple of big budget science fiction
movies, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, "SETI"
for short, has usually been depicted as a job for professionals-starship
captains, dedicated radio-astronomers or renegade FBI agents cracking a
- SETI (at) home (http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu)
aims to change all that. By using "distributed computing," a
new way of linking individual computers over the Internet, virtually anyone
with a desktop PC can begin hunting for aliens.
- "Distributed computing is one of
the Holy Grails of computer science," said project director David
Anderson, a computer scientist. "If it works, it could be 100 times
faster than the fastest current supercomputer."
- SETI-at-home scientists stress that the
project is not yet up and running and it will take at least six more months
before they are able to begin work. Once ready, it will start using the
Internet to parcel out to individual home computers chunks of raw data
obtained from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the largest "ear"
to space that mankind has ever built.
- Arecibo's huge dish scans the skies looking
for radio waves that might have been produced by alien intelligence.
- "We've been leaking television shows
and radio programs into space for decades," Werthimer said. "Maybe
somebody out there is doing the same-either sending out signals on purpose,
or just leaking them the way we are."
- The huge volume of radio data that must
be analyzed has long been one of the main stumbling blocks for SETI projects.
Even with fast new supercomputers able to complete as many as 200 billion
operations per second, the number crunch has been a slow grind that leaves
- That is where distributed computing comes
in. Made possible by the rapid growth of the Internet, it allows scientists
to break down large computing problems and distribute them through networks
of smaller computers. Each solves its own small part of the puzzle, then
feeds its answers back into the main computer to build an overview.
- Distributed computing has been used in
earlier projects including efforts to crack encryption codes and to figure
out large prime numbers. But SETI(at)home will use it for a something that
everyone can appreciate-resolving one of the biggest mysteries of the universe.
- "We are confident that Earth's civilization
is not the only one," said Bulgarian astronomer Veselka Radeva, who
has signed up for SETI(at)home. "It is only a question of time to
understand where and who are the other intelligent creatures in the universe."
- One intelligent Earth creature, one day,
may be lucky enough to retrieve the signals that indicate life exists in
- "They won't know right away if their
clunker was the one that found the extraterrestrial," Werthimer said,
noting that the data would have to be rechecked and reanalyzed at project
headquarters in Berkeley.
- "But after the checks, and if we
confirm it again, they will definitely get the credit for the discovery."
- For that chance, project participants
will not be asked to do much. Once the project is running, they will be
able to visit the SETI+home Web site and download an analysis program and
their first chunk of radio data from Arecibo.
- Their personal computers will then begin
searching through space in their free time. Appearing as a common "screen
saver," the SETI program will kick in when the computer is idle and
will not affect its normal operations.
- "It will all happen automatically.
You won't even know it is working on it," Werthimer said. When the
computer finishes combing over its first block of data, it will connect
back with the main project computer in Berkeley, send the data back, and
get a new data package to work on.
- "Everybody gets a little part of
the sky, their own little bit of the information," he said. "There
are 400 billion stars in our galaxy ... we need all the computing power
we can get."
- Werthimer's project casts a much broader
net than a similar operation run by the SETI Institute, a privately funded
group based in Mountain View, California, which is also using radio data
to hunt for alien life.
- While the institute concentrates on a
targeted search of some 1,000 nearby Sun-like stars considered likely candidates
for alien intelligence, SETI-at-home will take a broad look at the sky
in hopes that someone, somewhere, might be sending something our way.
- Like the SETI Institute, which was forced
to turn to private funds after Congress canceled a similar space search
mounted by NASA in 1992, SETI-at-home still needs money " an estimated
$200,000 before the project even gets rolling, primarily to pay for the
expensive magnetic tapes used to record the incoming radio data at Arecibo.
- But the key to success will be the participation
of tens of thousands of E.T. buffs who are willing to use their personal
computers for something other than e-mail.
- "I'm optimistic on life on the universe.
It would just be bizarre if we were the only ones," Werthimer said.
"It might be that there is a galactic community out there and they
are all talking to each other ... but we humans are just learning how."