By Steve Wiegand
Bee Staff Writer
(Published Nov. 14, 1998)
Imagine this: E.T. phones Earth, and you're the first to hear it
If you have a personal computer, access to the Internet and a
yen to hear from intelligent life elsewhere in the universe,
some scientists at UC Berkeley have a project that could make
It's called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence at
Home Project (SETI@home), and it's a serious worldwide program
designed to enhance the human species' chances of making contact
with some other species somewhere else.
"We want to know that we aren't the only kids on the block, even
if we can't talk to the other kids yet," said Seth Shostak, a
scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, which is one
of the project's sponsors.
"It's profoundly interesting to us as human beings. ... Is what
happened here something miraculous that didn't happen anywhere
else, or is it as common as a cheap hotel?"
The project works like this: People who sign up to participate
at one of several Web sites (http://www.planetary.org or
http://www.setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu) will be able to install,
or download, a software program into their personal computer.
The program is a screen saver -- one of those things that pops
up when your computer is on but you're not using it. Instead of
flying toasters or bubble-blowing fish, however, this screen
saver is sort of an answering machine. While it analyzes data
collected from space, it displays the analyses in a
The first time a computer user connects to the Internet and the
screen saver is up and on the screen, the computer will
automatically download a chunk of information from a project at
UC Berkeley, with the somewhat grandiloquent name of Search for
Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed
Intelligent Populations (SERENDIP).
The chunk is part of a huge heap of data that has been gathered
from a giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico that scans 168
million channels every 1.7 seconds, looking for signals that do
not occur in nature.
The data chunk then gets analyzed by the personal computer every
time the screen saver is on -- whether you are connected to the
Internet or not. When the chunk has been completely digested,
the computer sends it back to Berkeley and downloads another
chunk whenever the computer is connected back to the Internet.
Think of it as looking for a diamond ring on a beach. Rather
than trying to sift through the whole beach at once, the project
is meant to put the sand in hundreds of thousands of individual
"It will increase our computer capacity by a couple of orders of
magnitude (science-speak for a whole lot)," said David Anderson,
SETI@home project director. "It's way more than just a dent in
More than 100,000 computer owners around the world have already
signed up, even though the program is still in the testing phase
and won't be available until April 2. The number is expected to
significantly increase since the project is being publicized
with the release of a new "Star Trek" movie next month.
"We'd like to get a million people signed up to do this," said
Susan Lendroth, spokeswoman for the Pasadena-based Planetary
Society, which is a co-sponsor of the project. "It would be
great to have a million people signed up, because not everyone
uses their computer all the time. On any given day, maybe
100,000 people would be using their computers, and would be
Lendroth said that many people will see what appear to be
signals that are in reality interference from things such as
planes or satellites that passed over the telescope in Puerto
"Which is why we're letting them analyze it at Berkeley," she
If -- and it's the BIG IF -- a signal turns out to be something
from someone out there, the UC scientists will know whose home
computer first analyzed the data, although there may be a delay
of weeks before it's determined.
"If it's you," she said, "you are going to be very famous."
There are three SETI searches being done in the United States,
all of them privately funded: The Berkeley project, a project
financed by the Planetary Institute and run by Harvard
University, and the SETI Institute's Phoenix Project.
Congress cut off all financing for U.S. SETI efforts in 1993, on
the grounds that there were more practical uses for taxpayers'
money than waiting for a call from E.T., particularly when the
odds are long that we won't understand it even if a message
But scientists argue it's fundamental to the human species to
"It's worth doing even without the expectation that we're
suddenly going to be given the Encyclopedia Galactica," said
Shostak. "We have this natural curiosity hard-wired into us
about what's on the other side
of the hill."