SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 27 (Reuters)- There is good news for interstellar explorers. The search for intelligent alien life somewhere in the cosmos is about to get a lot easier-- almost as easy as getting e-mail from E.T.
Soon you will be able to join the search for life forms in outer space from the comfort of your home in your pajamas. All you need is a home computer and an Internet link.
Scientists at the University of California-Berkeley have devised a project to involve ordinary people around the world in the hunt for alien intelligence. Using home computers and the Internet, they hope to build a gigantic global ``brain'' to analyze interstellar radio signals for signs of life.
Who knows? The old clunker you once played ``Space Invaders'' on could be the computer that finally downloads hard evidence of real extraterrestrials.
``We might get a million people involved in this project,'' said Dan Werthimer, an astronomer at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory who is helping to run the project. ``Everybody is curious, everybody wants to know if there is life out there. This is a neat way of letting them participate in the hunt.''
Long a staple of big budget science fiction movies, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, ``SETI'' for short, has usually been depicted as a job for professionals-- starship captains, dedicated radio-astronomers or renegade FBI agents cracking a government conspiracy.
JUST A DOT COM AWAY
``SETI+home''-- http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu -- aims to change all that. By using ``distributed computing,'' a new way of linking individual computers over the Internet, virtually anyone with a desktop PC can begin hunting for aliens.
``Distributed computing is one of the Holy Grails of computer science,'' said project director David Anderson, a computer scientist. ``If it works, it could be 100 times faster than the fastest current supercomputer.''
SETI+home scientists stress that the project is not yet up and running and it will take at least six more months before they are able to begin work. Once ready, it will start using the Internet to parcel out to individual home computers chunks of raw data obtained from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the largest ``ear'' to space that mankind has ever built.
Arecibo's huge dish scans the skies looking for radio waves that might have been produced by alien intelligence.
``We've been leaking television shows and radio programmes into space for decades,'' Werthimer said. ``Maybe somebody out there is doing the same-- either sending out signals on purpose, or just leaking them the way we are.''
The huge volume of radio data that must be analysed has long been one of the main stumbling blocks for SETI projects. Even with fast new supercomputers able to complete as many as 200 billion operations per second, the number crunch has been a slow grind that leaves scientists frustrated.
That is where distributed computing comes in. Made possible by the rapid growth of the Internet, it allows scientists to break down large computing problems and distribute them through networks of smaller computers. Each solves its own small part of the puzzle, then feeds its answers back into the main computer to build an overview.
Distributed computing has been used in earlier projects including efforts to crack encryption codes and to figure out large prime numbers. But SETI+home will use it for something that everyone can appreciate-- resolving one of the biggest mysteries of the universe.
``We are confident that Earth's civilization is not the only one,'' said Bulgarian astronomer Veselka Radeva, who has signed up for SETI+home. ``It is only a question of time to understand where and who are the other intelligent creatures in the universe.''
Project managers say about 120,000 people have already registered for SETI+home, ranging from a 12-year-old in the Philippines to Silicon Valley computer professionals. One of them, one day, may be lucky enough to retrieve Arecibo signals that indicate life exists in the stars.
``They won't know right away if their clunker was the one that found the extraterrestrial,'' Werthimer said, noting that the data would have to be rechecked and reanalyzed at project headquarters in Berkeley.
``But after the checks, and if we confirm it again, they will definitely get the credit for the discovery.''
For that chance, project participants will not be asked to do much. Once the project is running, they will be able to visit the SETI+home Web site and download an analysis programme and their first chunk of radio data from Arecibo.
Their personal computers will then begin searching through space in their free time. Appearing as a common ``screen saver,'' the SETI programme will kick in when the computer is idle and will not affect its normal operations.
``It will all happen automatically. You won't even know it is working on it,'' Werthimer said. When the computer finishes combing over its first block of data, it will connect back with the main project computer in Berkeley, send the data back, and get a new data package to work on.
``Everybody gets a little part of the sky, their own little bit of the information,'' he said. ``There are 400 billion stars in our galaxy ... we need all the computing power we can get.''
CASTING A BROADER NET
Werthimer's project casts a much broader net than a similar operation run by the SETI Institute, a privately funded group based in Mountain View, California, which is also using radio data to hunt for alien life.
While the institute concentrates on a targeted search of some 1,000 nearby Sun-like stars considered likely candidates for alien intelligence, SETI+home will take a broad look at the sky in hopes that someone, somewhere, might be sending something our way.
Like the SETI Institute, which was forced to turn to private funds after Congress cancelled a similar space search mounted by NASA in 1992, SETI+home still needs money-- an estimated $200,000 before the project even gets rolling, primarily to pay for the expensive magnetic tapes used to record the incoming radio data at Arecibo.
But the key to success will be the participation of tens of thousands of E.T. buffs who are willing to use their personal computers for something other than e-mail.
``I'm optimistic on life in the universe. It would just be bizarre if we were the only ones,'' Werthimer said. ``It might be that there is a galactic community out there and they are all talking to each other ... but we humans are just learning how.''
Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.All rights reserved.