For three intriguing decades, SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has been scanning the skies, looking for tell-tale radio signals that would herald the existence of intelligent life, proving we are not alone in the universe.
They haven’t found them.
But they’ve been far from alone in their search.
Back in 1999, SETI found a way to involve huge numbers of space fans, linking their home computers to create a data-crunching web known as SETI@Home.
“One of the problems we have with SETI – and we still have this problem – is that the capability to collect large amounts of data has always outstripped our ability to analyze the data,” said Eric Korpela, director of SETI@Home, from the Berkeley-SETI Research Centre at the University of California.
“In the late nineties, a smart guy by the name of David Gedye came up with the idea of using internet-connected computers to analyze SETI data that we were then collecting at the Arecibo Radio Observatory in Puerto Rico. His idea was we’ll get a couple of thousand people who might be interested in SETI and will give their computer time to us, and we’ll be able to analyze all the data that we need.
“Of course, when we actually developed it and turned on the switch, we had more like a million people.”
These people had a tendency to be very interested in the search for alien life. And they’re not just passively interested. Many have become active contributors, as well.
“We actually go to a lot of effort to try to make a welcoming environment,” said Korpela.
“Over time, we’ve developed relationships with a lot of people from all over the world. We have a lot of our software development coming from our volunteers, as well. It wasn’t very long after we started up that we had our first SETI wedding of people who met on our Web site.”
All that analysis of all that data still has yet to yield a clear, obvious, drop-dead, no-question-about-it alien radio signal. But the mass linking of home computers – known as distributed computing – has led to some useful breakthroughs.
“We’ve learned that it behooves us to make our distributed computing software available to the community at large," Korpela noted.
“Since then, we’ve spun off a project called the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, which is pronounced ‘BOINC.’ It is being used by about 60 projects currently, doing everything from simulating evolution, investigating the structure of the galaxy, as well as developing code for protein folding to try and develop new cures for diseases.”
Korpela wrote a lot of the original computer code for SETI. He’s been there from the beginning.
So then I asked him:
If the day comes, if the signal is finally found and alien intelligence is confirmed, what will that feel like?
“My first instinct with anything is not to believe it. People in SETI have been led astray before by believing too quickly. I think that our skepticism serves us well.
“I would love for a signal to show up in our data. But I always say it may be a one per cent a year thing. In the remainder of my lifetime, maybe there’s a 40 per cent chance that we’ll find something – which is not something I would bet my life on … even though I’m betting my career on it.”