JOIN THE SEARCH FOR ET

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Do you have a computer connected to the internet? If so you can join SETI@home (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial   Intelligence) in the search for ET and it won’t cost you a penny. How excellent is that? You can even join in with an Android (not a humanoid robot) because they’re currently seeking help with testing an Android version of the program.

Full instructions about how to download the necessary software to participate is on their web site (link at the bottom). It’s very easy, simply download the BOINC software that SETI use and set it as your screensaver. Then whenever you’re away from the computer it cuts in and starts working. Check that your screensaver is set to come on after a relatively short time, a couple of minutes, so that no time is wasted.

If you’re not sure how to adjust your screensaver, simply click the F1 key while you’re on your empty desktop. It then opens up the help files. You then key in ‘screensaver’ and there it is. All very easy.

A bit of the history of SETI. They’re hosted by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, in the US. Its purpose is to analyse radio signals, searching for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. SETI@home was originally launched in May 1999 but the SETI Institute began operations in 1985.

SETI@home is a non-profit educational and research organization that relies significantly on donations to continue operations. You can of course donate to them (you’ll need your plastic for that) but it’s not obligatory. Monies received go to things like paying wages and rent.

You may have seen the film ‘Contact’ with Jodie Foster. That says a lot more about SETI than I ever could and it’s far more entertaining. Sources vary about who the film is based on, if anyone, but although the chief of SETI was Jill Tarter, and Jodie Foster based her character on her, the film is based on the fictional book (also called Contact) by Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan of course being the famous astronomer and TV presenter, instrumental in making science on telly watchable.

Sadly there has been only one contact at SETI, the famous ‘wow!’ signal. So called because the guy who spotted it, Jerry R. Ehman, wrote Wow! On the side to mark it. Despite thorough checking, the signal was never seen again. Maybe with more home computers on the job we can find another wow!

The fact that it wasn’t possible to find it again suggests to me, at least, that the object making the signal was moving. Was it ET flying by in his ship? Who knows? But it certainly wasn’t one of ours, they know how to rule out terrestrial signals at SETI.

By downloading the BOINC software you will also be able to participate in many other scientific projects, not only SETI, in case you’re not interested in looking for aliens. Once installed you will be offered a list of projects to take part in when your computer’s not in use.

If your computer is old and slow then it may not be up to the task. First there’s the initial download, about 10 MB. Then you’ll need about 20 MB of free disk space and 64 MB of RAM. A typical computer, like a 2 GHz Pentium 4, is fine. You’ll need to let the screensaver run for at least 2 hours per week (slower computers are OK but they’ll have to run proportionally longer).

I find two hours is easy to achieve. It doesn’t have to be in one session, by the way, it’s cumulative. I find that those times when I slip off to make a cuppa or chase the cleaner around a bit (that’s the vacuuming machine, not the cleaning lady. My cleaning lady exists only in my head) that the time the computer’s inactive but running is plenty.

If you’re using the computer, then the program does nothing, so don’t be afraid that it will slow down your machine while you’re using it. It won’t. It has to be running but not in use.

Some of the technical stuff. Since the advent of radio we humans have been incidentally sending the signals out into space. Even a garage remote control does it to some extent. So anyone out there within range and scanning the skies for signals will know that we’re out here. SETI’s hoping to do that in reverse.

We have in fact deliberately sent out signals hoping to make contact. The signals included stuff like what we look like. The wisdom of that is questionable. A species far smarter or stronger than us may see us as an easy target. The history of one Earth race finding a less developed and less well armed one is far from a pretty one.

The problem SETI faces is the huge amount of computational power that’s needed to scan all the frequencies all the time. Once it picks up something interesting it then has to fix on that while deciding if it shows intelligence.

So they have an enormous problem. They record some 35 gigs of stuff daily. Masses of data. Your average PC will take about thirty hours on one ‘work unit’. The daily 35 gigs is broken down into 140,000 of these work units. You start to see the problem and why SETI needs every helping hand it can get. The computational time runs into millions of hours.

Could your computer be the one that picks up the first signal from ET? It’s possible. Someone has to. You won’t find out if you don’t try. It won’t cost you a penny and if you find that you don’t like it you can switch back to your old screensaver and remove the BOINC software (in Control Panel, Programs and Features, select BOINC and click uninstall). It couldn’t be simpler.

Example Screensaver

Example Screensaver

http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/

Sources: SETI Institute

How Stuff Works

Wikipedia

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