By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
Want to look for signs of life in outer space? It's easy and it won't cost you anything.
All you need is a modern computer, a connection to the Internet and a sense of adventure. With a quick download, you can become part of the SETI@Home project, which uses deep-space data gathered by a huge radio telescope. All the computers that join the SETI@Home project do the same thing -- they look for patterns in the signals that have been plucked out of the sky, hoping to spot a greeting or maybe just a sign of intelligent life in outer space.
The folks who created SETI@Home figured they'd get 100,000 or so computer users to join the effort. Instead, enthusiastic users from around the country have swamped the computer servers at SETI@Home. As of this month, more than a million computer users had linked their computers to the ones at SETI@Home across the Internet.
You don't have to pay any dues or anything like that. You just download the SETI@Home program from the project's Web site -- it's headquartered at the University of California at Berkeley -- and fill out your name and e-mail address so the folks who run the project can keep track of how you're doing. Don't be shy about giving out your name, because you could get famous overnight if your computer is the first one to pick up a faint "Hello" from a distant planet.
SETI@Home's software runs on any Windows PC or Apple Macintosh, and runs on Linux and Unix computers, too. The Windows and Mac versions are screen savers so that the SETI@Home program won't interfere with anything else the computer is doing. The Linux and Unix versions can run all the time without affecting the normal operation of the computer, so they don't have to be screen savers.
Here's how SETI@Home works. Your computer links up across the Internet to a main site run by SETI@Home volunteers. It automatically asks for some radio-telescope data and then logs off. Then your computer starts munching on the data, looking for patterns that would show a sign of intelligent life. It saves everything it's doing every minute or so, making the program immune to crashes or lockups. (It just backs up a bit and catches up if something interrupts it.)
After a while, your computer logs back onto the SETI@Home site automatically and sends up the results of all its calculations. It then asks for more data and starts the process all over again. If you leave your computer on all the time -- a good idea anyway, since the parts inside last longer that way -- the software can get a lot of processing done while you're at work or while you're sleeping.
If you looked at this from close up, you'd see a lot of single computers logging on and off a Web site and doing calculations. But take a long view, as if you were on the moon, maybe, and you'd see a single, giant web of connected computers. This is called distributed processing. Without a doubt, the SETI@Home project is the world's largest distributed-processing system.
SETI@Home's biggest Syracuse-area fan is my radio partner and fellow Stars columnist, Gene Wolf. His Web site has the links you need already set up, and you can quickly join the local team of SETI volunteers just by clicking a link from his site. Go to http://www.wolfwebshops.com/ and look for a link to our WSYR radio show at the left sife of the main page. Go to that link and you'll see how to get started with SETI@Home.