May 27, 2009

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence...really!


There are plenty of reasons to visit Puerto Rico, perfect climate, beautiful beaches, lots of history, and one gigantic reason that you may not know about. An hour and a half from San Juan, sits the Arecibo Observatory; home to the world's largest single-dish radio telescope. You may have seen it in Contact with Jodi Foster. You may have seen it in the James Bond flick, GoldenEye. But you may not know that what happens at Arecibo can connect you with E.T. and the depths of the cosmos.

Stretching 1000 feet across and covering nearly 20 acres, the Arecibo dish listens for sounds that aren't part of the natural noises of space. Arecibo is seeking radio signals that indicate the presence of intelligent life beyond our planet.

If you think about the vast expanse of sky, the great depth of space and the many different radio frequencies you start to get a sense of the tremendous amount of data that the telescope collects as it does its job. To analyze all that data, scientists would need an enormous super computer, which, of course, means enormous amounts of money. Lacking that, some very creative people thought it would make a lot more sense to use not one supercomputer but many, many, many small computers; each one working on a little chunk of data. This is where you come in.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) developed SETI@Home so they can send manageable amounts of information to computers just like yours. Basically, you go to the SETI@Home site and download a special "screensaver" called BOINC. Once that's done, you can connect to SETI and have data transmitted to your computer. Then BOINC goes to work. According to the SETI site, "Like other screensavers it starts up when you leave your computer unattended, and it shuts down as soon as you return to work. What it does in the interim is unique. While you are getting coffee, or having lunch or sleeping, your computer will be helping the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by analyzing data specially captured by the world's largest radio telescope." When your computer has finished working on its data, it lets you know it's ready to transmit its results. The site says transmission takes less than five minutes and you control when your computer reconnects with SETI.

SETI@Home just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. In the course of the past decade, 5 million people in 200 countries have been part of the search for life outside our world and about one million people are currently part of this most amazing research project. If you are a woman who dreams of off-world adventures as she gazes at the night sky or you just love the idea of being part of something really, really big, click here to check out the SETI@Home web page.

To listen to SETI Director Dan Werthimer talking with Ira Flatow on NPR's Science Friday, click here.




Image credit: BLUE BACKGROUND WITH STARS
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1 comment:

Jonathan B said...

For those interested in an easy way to join SETI@home I recommend GridRepublic. It is a non-profit working in collaboration with BOINC to create an easier way to discover, join, and manage involvement in volunteer computing. http://www.gridrepublic.org