How Can I Search For Extra- Terrestrial Intelligence From the Comfort of My Own Laptop?

How can I get involved?

Make your computer do science while you're gas-bagging by the
coffee machine.
I'm putting this bit (which is really the middle of the post) at the top because it's the meat of the issue, and it's the bit I want you to read before you give up. If you want more info, scroll down for the side-orders (which should really be the beginning of the post), and even further for the veg (which should, in all honesty, be at the beginning). It may seem a bit back-to-front, but I'm sure you've all seen some Quentin Tarantino movies at some time or another.

Here's what to do; keep reading afterwards for reasons why you might want to do it.

  • You can find out about the project and download the software here (it's free): http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/
  • Basically, you just download the BOINC software and, when prompted, enter the address "http://setiathome.berkeley.edu" in order to attach your computer to the project.
  • After that, you just leave your computer to its own devices, and it'll do worthy things for scientific causes while your back's turned.


Some extras...


  • SETI@home is just one of many similar projects you can get your home computers working on. There are projects based in other areas of cosmology and astronomy, as well as medicine (investigating such things as protein structure), mathematics (searching for prime numbers), cryptography (cracking codes) and climate prediction. If you feel like getting involved in more than one project, I'd suggest signing up via GridRepublic. It's exactly the same software, but with extra bits that take some of the legwork out of keeping tabs on multiple projects.
  • If you sign up for SETI@home and/or one of the other projects, please consider joining the Blogstronomy team. Teams are just a bit of fun and a way of showing collective support for the projects you decide to run, and isn't it just great to feel like you belong somewhere?


Why should I get involved?

SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, is an organisation that I talked about a bit in this post. In short, they are an independent organisation of scientists conducting research and experiments with the end goal of finding out if there is intelligent life elsewhere in our universe, and if so, where it is, what it's doing and, eventually, what they like for tea.

Once facet of their scientific work utilises the 305 metre Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. The telescope collects radio signals from the stars which then needs to be analysed by supercomputers. There is a lot of data to work through, and even supercomputers can only do so much processing, so the job is a slow one.

That's where you (and I) come in.

In 1999 SETI released SETI@home, a project that utilises unused computing power of hundreds of thousands of home computers around the world. The idea is this:

Home computers spend much of their time sitting on desks doing nothing much at all: whenever you go off for a coffee break, or answer the phone, or even off to lunch, it's not usually worth shutting your computer down, so you just let it sit there using electricity, humming away to itself until your screensaver comes on and a bunch of pipes start flying around the screen.

Can this wasted processing time somehow by harnessed and used for good? Yes, it can. How? By installing SETI@home your computer becomes a remote extension to SETI's supercomputers. When you're working, your computer is left well alone, but when you wander off for a few minutes and the screensaver kicks in, instead of bouncing a clock around the screen in boredom, it gets to work on crunching some numbers in aid of some serious science. Into the bargain you get a pretty awesome-looking screensaver, too.


Comments

  1. I've tried something similar before. Now, I understand that we all have excess processing power these days, but I am concerned with electricity consumption and with fan noise. The latter in particular was a pain when I tried it some time ago.

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  2. Extra power consumption may be in issue; I'd like to see figures detailing the difference between running a computer for an hour (for example) with the standard screensaver on and running it for an hour with a network computing project running.

    Fan noise would, I guess, depend on your setup. My laptop's fan can be pretty loud, but it tends to quieten down if I leave it with plenty of clear space around the vent. For most office computers (which I think this is primarily aimed at) fan noise wouldn't be an issue- how often is an office quiet enough for the computer fans to be the loudest things in it?

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