SETI phone home

Looking up at the sky, one wonders if Carl Sagan was right – all that space with nothing for us to communicate with or interact on a species-to-species basis is a waste.

For more than three years, the people at the SETI@home project have been trying to do something to prove that the universe has better plans for space than just waste.

The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence found life in the mind of Dave Gedye, according to David Anderson, the director of SETI@home at the University of California, Berkeley.

Anderson said Gedye had been a graduate student of his – he was a computer science professor at Berkeley in the ’80s. “He graduated and moved away but we remained friends,” he said.

“Dave was the one who had the idea for SETI@home. He’s one of those prolific thinkers who has a million crazy schemes, but some of them make sense,” Anderson said. “In early ’95 he decided to pursue this. He’s not an astronomer, but he researched and found out who was doing radio SETI in those days. One of the people doing it was Dan Werthimer. He put me together with Dan – I happened to be a specialist in distributed computing and software in general. So that was the nucleus of the team.”

Anderson added that it took a while to get the project off the ground because it was a large undertaking, which included building a system to digitally record data onto tapes.

“We had to get a lot of computers at Berkeley to store that data, to chop it up into pieces and distribute it on the Internet to those running the screen saver,” he said. “Then the task of writing the software was a major one. I wrote a skeleton, but we had to hire developers to write it for Windows and Mac. This wasn’t something we could really do in our spare time.”

At that time it was illegal for the U.S. government to fund SETI-related research, he said. It took about three years for the team to find someone to put up money for the project. Their benefactor came in the form of Paramount Pictures, which wanted to do a publicity event involving SETI for one of their movies.

SETI@home is a screen saver that anyone can download. While a computer is idle, the software behind the screen saver takes chunks of data – transmitted from space – and breaks them down to search for an intelligent signal. The screen saver itself shows the software working to crunch that data.

“We listen to radio waves that have travelled hundreds or thousands of years through space and there are no flying saucers involved,” Anderson said. “And if we do hear a signal, who knows if the civilization that sent it is still around? And if we send them a reply, it will take the same number of years to get back to them. It’s potentially a very long-term project.”

He said there is only one type of signal they are really interested in.

“The kind of signal we’re looking for is really simple – something similar to a TV station broadcast, any of the ways human use radio ourselves. The main characteristic is that it is a signal that has very narrow bandwidth – all the power is concentrated at one frequency. That’s the kind of signal, that as far as we know, doesn’t occur in nature anywhere. If we hear that then we’ll try to look at that,” Anderson said.

The project uses the radar equipment at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory to collect the signals it distributes to users. There are almost 200,000 Canadian accounts opened.

The Trekkies

Anderson has often asked himself why people are so interested in this project, which has more than four million accounts worldwide.

“We did a Web poll on this. There are two major categories – people driven to help find whether there’s life outside earth and who feel as I do that that’s the most important unanswered question in science right now.

“Those are the science fiction fans. Then there’s a class of people that don’t seem to care about that. They are the ones that have the fastest computer on the block. They like to see their names on a leader board – that group is not to be discounted – they have the fastest computers,” he said.

Mike Church is a bit of a sci-fi guy, as well as one who likes to win the race. He and friend and co-worker, Andrew Flostrand, started implementing this at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver a couple of years ago.

“At the time we had 70 computers. Andrew got this bright idea, ‘Hey, if we got every machine in our lab, we’d be able to look for aliens a lot faster.’ Then Andrew started sneaking it on staff machines,” Church said.

The Systems Administrator for the faculty of business at SFU said people didn’t mind once they explained the project.

“People are very intrigued by this. What better use of idle time on a computer than to go looking for aliens?” he asked. “We have maybe 150 machines – some of them are pretty low, but we’re crunching a good number of data packets.”

Church said he doesn’t think they will ever bow out of this program.

Doug Gardner did. He ran the SETI@home project from his laptop for more than six months, but said there were a couple of things that bothered him.

“You would have to disable the program if it was in the middle of sending the packet. Also if it finished a chunk of data, it would keep asking for an Internet connection, even if I had one established. I got tired of that,” he said.

Gardner, owner of Exoteric, technology consulting firm, was attracted by the idea of finding a way to make contact with whatever might be out there. He said it was very easy to download.

He suggested that the project leaders try to keep in touch a bit more with those participating or offer some more information about what’s really going on.

“If they had put links in the software to information or into a button on the screen saver – something that explained what was actually happening,” Gardner said. “A newsletter or some form of feedback would make people feel they are more a part of it. That the people receiving the data were doing something with it – that would have been nice to know.”

Anderson said the numbers right now are very stable. Many corporations now have policies that forbid employees from downloading outside software onto their desktops, and he said that might be one reason for the slow-down in new people joining the project.

But, he added, people will always be interested in this.

“We are searching for life outside earth, which is a compelling thing and an important task.”