For the past 50 minutes, my laptop has been searching for E.T.
No, really. We’re talking about the proverbial aliens-in-outer-space stuff here.
Through downloadable software called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), my little computer lends its processing powers to SETI@home, a computing project that analyzes recorded radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley hosts the venture. Virtually undetectable to the user, BOINC runs in the background of a computer, employing otherwise unused processing functions.
The concept is simple. Even the largest and most efficient computers in the world would take inordinate amounts of time to sift through the collection of data from radio telescopes that SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) partners accumulate. By asking volunteers to help process these records through software downloaded to their personal computers, additional information can be scanned in a shorter period, while also allowing for more frequency ranges to be covered with increased scrutiny.
In other words, the data can be scanned faster and in greater detail.
Similar projects have been established to help evaluate other types of information. For instance, Einstein@home has found 18 previously unknown neutron stars using distributed computing. Likewise, Rosetta@home hopes to determine the three-dimensional shapes of proteins that could aid in producing cures to a variety of diseases.
Since its 1999 launch, SETI@home has more than 9 million computers and 1.4 million total users assisting in its own unique task. Together, this web of processors makes it one of the biggest supercomputers in the world.
As I write this, the software is looking into data collected on March 12, 2008, from an area of space with the coordinates of 11 20’ 18” and +32 18’ 10”. Thanks to the NASA website SkyView, I can even plug in these numbers and view the region my laptop is helping to explore.
But what exactly is SETI@home looking for in its analysis?
The answer is any unusual radio signals within certain frequencies that can’t be explained by sources originating from earth.
Unlike with the Einstein@home project, SETI@home has yet to confirm the presence of any alien radio transmissions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t being broadcast. The shear vastness of the universe could just make it difficult for us to detect them.
In our Milky Way galaxy, alone, astronomers estimate that anywhere from 100 billion to 400 billion stars exist. To date, scientists have mapped roughly one percent of these. Also, take into account that the universe contains at least 100 billion other galaxies, and you can see how a needle in a haystack would be easier to find than signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Still, that doesn’t keep humans from continuing to ask if we are alone here in this grand universe.
In recent years, increased funds have been pledged to search the heavens for evidence that we’re not. Breakthrough Listen, an effort to search 10 times more sky than previous programs, launched in 2015 with a 10-year budget of $100 million. Through this funding, 1 million of the stars closest to Earth will be surveyed. Data from the research will be analyzed by — you guessed it — SETI@home participants, but will also be open to the public.
“Millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child — our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings — an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘In either case the idea is quite staggering’,” stated an open letter from Breakthrough initiatives founder Yuri Milner and other supporters.
“That means the search for life is the ultimate ‘win-win’ endeavor. All we have to do is take part.”
Participating in the SETI@home project from the comfort of our own homes could be our chance to do just this.
Beam writes for the Jeffersonville, Indiana News and Tribune.