85-foot telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory
was used by Frank Drake in Project Ozma
Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, began on
April 8, 1960, when Frank Drake eavesdropped on radio signals
from two nearby, sun-like stars. Though his historic search
yielded nothing, Project Ozma inspired similar "listening"
projects around the world.
Congress cut all public funding for SETI research in 1993,
privately funded efforts
continue. The long-running project SERENDIP (Search for Extraterrestrial
Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations)
is underway at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.
20 acres, Arecibo has the world's most sensitive radio
the 1,000 foot-wide radio telescope gathers huge amounts of
astronomical data, which SERENDIP scientists then analyze
for signals from an alien civilization. The problem is processing.
No single computer can handle all the information, so Berkeley
scientists Dan Werthimer and David Anderson came up with a
way to get several million computers into the act.
participants help sort the huge amounts of data collected
designed software that allows personal computer owners to
dedicate their machines' spare time to the search for a signal.
The software behaves like a screensaver, allowing users to
work undisturbed. But, during coffee breaks or over night,
it downloads chunks of data from Arecibo and puts the computers
of July, 2000, more than two million computers in 224 countries
were running the software. Since the project began on May
16, 1999, the combined processing time of participants totals
more than 330,000 years. And in the last year, the project
has turned up about 100 intriguing radio transmissions that
merited a second look.
far, everything has turned out to be terrestrial interference,"
says Werthimer. "We think the universe is teeming with life,
but there's still no evidence."
remains optimistic. The SETI@Home project saves scientists
the effort of building a new supercomputer every five years
or so. Each SETI@Home volunteer who upgrades his or her personal
computer is upgrading the entire project, little by little.
Werthimer thinks computing power will have to increase by
a factor of about a billion before we find what we're looking
for. But with processing speeds doubling every year and with
3,000 volunteers signing up each day, Werthimer estimates
they'll hit pay dirt in about thirty years. Not long in the
context of human history.
are just new in the game," says Werthimer. "We've only looked
at one corner of the Universe."
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David Parker, courtesy NAIC-Arecibo Observatory; NRAO/AUI;