New SETI@home Article in Post-Gazette

Robert Owen (
Mon, 13 Sep 1999 01:24:04 -0400

Please credit the following for contents of this post. The POST-GAZETTE
Article is reproduced in unedited form; I am not responsible for factual
errors contained therein. For comments or corrections, contact the
Newspaper at the URL below. [RMO]

                           The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

                       Stig Agermose of

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                           Sunday, September 12, 1999

                  By Ken Zapinski, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The computer set about its task with single-minded efficiency, combing
through tens of thousands of bits of data to find evidence of extra-
terrestrial life.

One erstwhile researcher was short on patience, though. The project,
after all, was cutting into her time with her Madeline Preschool CD-ROM.

"Can we see the picture of the man from space?" my three-year-old
daughter asked.

This high-tech mission was not taking place on university workstation
or a NASA mainframe. My family's grape iMac is part of or a NASA mainframe. My family's grape iMac is part of SETI@Home,
a project linking more than a million data-crunching desktop computers
around the world to see if we have any neighbors in the universe.

The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) program acts as a screen-
saver, kicking in when your computer is left idle for a few minutes
and clicking off when the computer is needed again.

"Why look at goldfish or flying toasters on your screen?" asked
SETI@Home's chief scientist, David Werthimer. "Why not help out
with a global science project?"

It's surprisingly easy for anyone to become a do-it-yourself Fox Mulder
and take part in a quest to find what is Out There. All you need is a
computer and an Internet connection to link with the project head-
quarters at the University of California-Berkeley setiathome.ssl.

 Since May, more than 1.16 million computers around the world have
taken part in the project. "It is pretty amazing. We were hoping to
get 100,000," Werthimer said.

Keep in mind that the world's most powerful supercomputer, at Sandia
National Laboratory in Albuquerque, is powered by 9,326 Pentium Pro
processors. "The more computing power that you have, the better job
you can do in sorting through all the signals," Werthimer said.

The computers are scanning data collected from the Arecibo Radio
Observatory in Puerto Rico, which is scanning the heavens looking for
the remnants of alien television programs, a radio signal, a radar
beacon or some other electronic pulse that would indicate the
existence of intelligent life.

"There's a small but captivating possibility that your computer will
detect the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth," reads the
tantalizing come-on included on the tantalizing come-on included on the SETI@Home Web site.

Or, as John G. Radzilowicz, director of the Buhl Planetarium &
Observatory quipped, you don't have to go looking for the aliens.
They'll call you at home on your computer.

It took just a few moments for my iMac to download the appropriate
SETI program from the Web site. (Versions are also available for
Windows, UNIX, OS/2 and other operating systems.) After a quick
install, the iMac received its first chunk of data, which was collected
by Arecibo on March 16. Wave after wave of red, pink and blue bars
appeared onscreen as the data was analyzed. The monitor would
have looked at home on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Paramount Studios, keeper of the "Star Trek" franchise, contributed
$50,000 to kick off the $50,000 to kick off the SETI@Home program, but the graphic design
of the program is coincidental, according to project director David P.

A loose network of computers chugging away on a common task
won't work for every computing problem, Werthimer said. But it has
proved to be an innovative solution for SETI projects in general,
which had their NASA funding cut off six years ago, he said.

Even with all the public support, the Even with all the public support, the SETI@Home project is barely
keeping up with the 50 gigabytes of data that Arecibo records every
day as it sweeps the sky.

For the record, my first unit of data was completed in 19 hours, 5
minutes and 12.7 seconds of computing time, considerably faster than
the project average of 27:04:32.6. That is just one of many project
statistics constantly updated on the Web site.

Most of the project computers -- 811,409 as of last week -- are at
home, but most of the work is done by computers at the office.
About half are located in the U.S., with the United Kingdom and
Germany next in line. There is but a single user in Mali.

Together, the computers have performed more than 69,318 years of
data analysis.

"It's the biggest computation that's ever been done," Werthimer said.
 "On this planet anyway."

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA

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