February 28, 2001
Millions Volunteer to Search for Alien Life
By Anick Jesdanun
AP Internet Writer
NEW YORK Michael Johnson is so committed to finding life in outer space he bought an dlrs 800 computer to do nothing but analyze radio signals for signs of E.T.
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Other SETI projects
Combined with his two other computers, Johnson has donated nearly two years of processing power to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
"If I'm the one who finds the signal, hooray for me,'' said Johnson, 35, an Omaha, Nebraska, resident who works for a long-distance telephone company.
Even if the question of whether we're alone remains unanswered, Johnson is by no means alone.
Nearly 3 million Internet users worldwide have donated their idle processing power to SETI@Home, one of about a dozen SETI efforts to detect alien life. By stringing those computers together, researchers can do a better job of scanning the sky.
"It's something that's very near to my heart,'' said Rob Yale, 47, a Toronto recording studio owner who has been watching stars since he was about 11. "I'm doing my part for something that I would really like to know the answer to.''
SETI@Home, which runs out of the University of California at Berkeley, uses the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico to record signals from outer space.
Researchers slice those signals and distribute them to SETI volunteers, whose computers analyze the data and send back results for further analysis at Berkeley. Volunteers only have to connect to the Net and can even set the software to do so automatically.
David Anderson, the project's director, says SETI volunteers already have identified hundreds of millions of "candidate signals'' that warrant further review, though most are likely background noise or manmade signals from Earth.
The project needs intensive computing power to correct for uncertainties in how a planet from which a signal emanates might rotate and orbit, factors that affect how signals appear on Earth. Think of how a fire engine's siren appears to change as the truck whizzes down the street.
In less than two years, the SETI computers have together completed more than 570,000 years of calculations. The 550,000 active volunteers contribute the power of about twice the world's fastest supercomputer, the dlrs 110 million ASCI White built for nuclear weapon simulations.
SETI@Home organizers now hope to extend the project beyond its scheduled May completion, possibly by using a telescope in Australia.
The project has a loyal following. Scores of SETI clubs have formed around the world. It's highly competitive, with a Web site tracking the most productive individuals and groups.
Many users are astronomy buffs or have interests in science fiction. They generally believe there is life in outer space, though many acknowledge it could take a few generations or longer to establish that.
Bill Fuller, 56, a computer consultant near Magdalena, New Mexico, understands SETI may never find alien life, but it's worth the effort: "If you don't look for the things you don't expect to find, you don't find them.''