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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1999 > Apr > Apr 28

Next Month Nearly Half A Million Will Join Search

From: stig.agermose@get2net.dk (Stig Agermose)
Date: Wed, 28 Apr 1999 06:32:29 GMT
Fwd Date: Wed, 28 Apr 1999 09:36:15 -0400
Subject: Next Month Nearly Half A Million Will Join Search


Source: St. Paul/Minneapolis Pioneer Planet,

http://www.pioneerplanet.com:80/seven-days/2/tech/docs/030201.htm

Stig

***

Published: Monday, April 26, 1999   

Project enlists home computers in search for extraterrestrial
intelligence

JOHN SNELL NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

**

Next month, nearly a half-million people will assume the role of
Capt. Kirk and take their home computers on two-year missions to
seek out new life and new civilizations.

And, thanks to the Internet, they won't have to go anywhere --
boldly or otherwise -- to do it.

A group of space scientists at the University of California at
Berkeley is launching SETIHome, an ambitious program to use the
screen savers on personal computers to analyze data from the
world's largest radio telescope.

It will use the Net to tie them all together in a coordinated
search for alien life.

The program is free and looking for volunteers.

Enthusiasts will think it's neat; skeptics may not. The head of
SETIHome says their work is "kind of cool" and peppers his
discussions of the project with references to the general public
as "Earthlings."

The project is an offshoot of SETI, the Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Its most famous advocate was the
late Carl Sagan, a scientist and author perhaps best-known for
his appearances on "The Tonight Show."

Those at SETIHome bristle at the idea that the screen saver
program is pop science but admit the project could be helpful in
gathering private money, because Congress cut off funding six
years ago.

"I can't deny that it's attractive to us because it's a way of
attracting people worldwide," said Dan Werthimer, project
scientist with SETIHome. But he insists there's value in the
approach.

The idea is to take raw data gathered by the 1,000-foot Arecibo
radio telescope in Puerto Rico and divide it among thousands of
home computers.

Each computer will download a quarter-megabyte of Arecibo's data
from the Net and analyze it. When the home computer is done, it
will send the results back and grab another chunk of data. The
project will continue for two years.

Because the program is a screen saver, it will operate only
during a computer's idle time -- when someone is away from the
keyboard, for example.

SETIHome promises the application will require a maximum of
about 20 megabytes of storage on a hard disk. And it will do its
sending and receiving when users are on the Net doing other
things.

Will they actually find anything? Retired guys wandering in the
park have a better chance of finding buried treasure with their
metal detectors.

"Whether or not we find something is fairly doubtful," said
David P. Anderson, a visiting scientist creating the screen
savers at SETI.

For one thing, current technology might not cut it. Radio was
discovered in this century, and knowledge of it is primitive.

Anderson noted that it's always possible that if other
civilizations are sending signals, they're using methods humans
don't know about.

"If a planet almost clear across the galaxy had a transmitter
and were pointing it straight at us, we would pick it up," he
said. Otherwise, forget it.

If a screen saver does find something, it would be months --
maybe even a year -- before anyone knew.

"There's no little red light that goes off," Anderson said. "The
signal is sent back here to our database" and eventually matched
up with other observations.

Werthimer said if a discovery is made by someone running a
screen saver, that person would get credit.

"Maybe we will go to Stockholm together to get the Nobel Prize,"
he said. "But I can't guarantee it."

SETIHome is one of the first major applications of a technique
called distributed computing. It is a method of breaking a huge
task into pieces that can be split among lots of computers.

In the same way that it's quicker to sort a huge pile of playing
cards into separate decks when all the players help, number
crunching will be quicker with thousands of computers doing
small pieces of it.

This tag-team approach to data crunching was used originally by
academics to search for prime numbers and crack encrypted
messages.

"SETI is kind of cool," Werthimer said, "because we can say,
'You get this piece of sky' and 'You get this piece of sky.' Not
all problems can be solved this way.

"We've already analyzed in two weeks what would normally take a
couple of years," he said.

A version of the program that will run on Windows and another
for the Mac will be released in mid-May. Werthimer said 350,000
volunteers already have signed up.


Leaking signals


SETI often has noted that the Earth has been leaking radio
signals into space for nearly a half-century, in effect sending
Captain Kangaroo and Ralph Kramden as our ambassadors to the
cosmos.

But those signals are weak and not focused in any particular
direction. Werthimer said an alien civilization would have to be
far ahead of us to pick them up and make sense of them.

"Right now, Earthlings are fairly restricted in looking at
civilizations that are at least at our level," Werthimer said.
"It's likely that the first ones we'll get in contact with are
billions of years ahead of us and have already been in contact
with other life on other planets.

"Most astronomers think the universe is teeming with life," he
said. "There are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It
would just be weird to think there isn't life out there anywhere
else."

Werthimer said he thinks SETIHome will ignite the public's
interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

"There is overwhelming support for SETI in this country, even
though Congress cut off funding for it in 1993," he said.

Since then, SETI has benefited from corporate sponsors.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Intel are among the sponsors
of SETI's Project Phoenix. The sponsors of SETIHome include Sun
Microsystems and Paramount Pictures, which got SETI to time one
of its events to coincide with December's release of the most
recent "Star Trek" movie.

"I'm hoping that we're reaching more people than the sci-fi,
'Star Trek' buffs," Werthimer said. "It would be nice to reach
out to the people who aren't interested in science. There are a
lot of interesting questions around the question of 'Are we
alone?'"


=A9 1999 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press - All
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