You Can Help Search for Signs of Intelligent Life

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Were you one of the millions left crying when E.T. took off? Why not write your own sequel?

A Berkeley, California based research group is trying to marshal the spare processing power of home and business computer users around the world in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. All you need to play is a computer capable of downloading a relatively small file from the Internet--about 20MB--and enough skill to run an application about as complicated as a screensaver.

"The chance of finding life is very remote, but it is real," insists Dan Werthimer, director of SERENDIP at the University of California at Berkeley.

Recruiting PCs for Grid

The center is sponsoring SETI@home, a project that will harness the computing power of thousands of Internet users to help scientists comb the heavens for signs of intelligent life. The date the software will be available for download is still uncertain, but organizers are aiming for the middle of next year.

SERENDIP already harvests and analyzes enormous amounts of data with the aid of the world's largest radio telescope and a 40-processor supercomputer in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. But, even at 200 billion operations per second, the supercomputer is unable to keep up with the constant stream of data flowing from the telescope.

By adding as many as 100,000 networked computers to their arsenal, scientists think they can do a better job of sifting the massive volume of radio signals for clues to life on other planets. In fact, SERENDIP views the Internet itself as a supercomputer.

"The Internet's 30 million computers, acting together, form a parallel supercomputer of unprecedented power," the group says. SETI@home is the first attempt to apply this model to a real-world problem, and it could lay the groundwork for other experiments in massively distributed computing.

To become part of this experiment you need only spend a few minutes downloading the SETI@home software when it becomes available from SERENDIP's Web site next year. The download also will include a batch of data uploaded from Arecibo. Once the application is installed, it will run like a screen saver, popping up when the computer is idle and disappearing when you get back to work.

Patient Searchers

Crunching the data will take at least 24 hours of computer time, and since the application will only run when the computer is idling, it could take days for the average user to finish the computation. But there's no hurry, says Werthimer.

When the computation is complete, the software will tell the user what it has found and ask that the completed file be uploaded back to the project's Web site.

Although the software is still being written, potential E.T. hunters are invited to visit the Web site now and let the organizers know they're interested. Anyone may participate, but Werthimer hopes that those who volunteer will see it as more than a gimmick.

"We'd like people to stick with it," he says.

SERENDIP is one of several organizations under the umbrella of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Best known of these groups is probably the SETI Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Mountain View, California, which has more than two dozen related projects.

You might be the first on your block with E.T.'s home phone number.

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