If you’re fascinated with the possibility of life on other planets and eager to make contact with extraterrestrial civilizations, there are two options for you. One is to do nothing and simply hope that you’ll become an alien abductee. If you’re anywhere near as lucky as this Massachusetts woman was in 1967, you very well may see a strange glow through your kitchen window some evening and then find yourself whisked away by a crew of small-statured, large-headed beings who emanate a feeling of tremendous love. Of course, as she discovered, there also are a few downsides, like having the aliens implant a bee-like device in your brain and then later return to retrieve it through your nose. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s an experience I’d prefer just to read about. The lost time phenomenon that abductees have reported experiencing sounds a little disconcerting, too. I have enough trouble finding my iPhone and the electronic key to my Prius amid the piles of old issues of Fortean Times in my living room, without having minutes or hours of my life mysteriously vanish as well.
But there is another, better option for participating in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), without having to leave the comfort and convenience of your own home. As this recent New Scientist article details, all you have to do is log on to SETIQuest.org. The latter is a web site recently launched by the SETI Institute, a California-based private nonprofit organization, that allows ordinary people to participate in various ways in the collective effort to find alien civilizations, and makes it possible for anyone to peruse the vast amount of telescope data collected by SETI scientists.
SETIQuest is the brainchild of the institute’s executive director, astronomer Jill Tarter. After winning the $100,000 TEDPrize last year, Tarter got the customary chance to make a wish in front of an audience full of some of the world’s top technology thinkers. She asked for a way to “empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” SETIQuest hopes to recruit an army of citizen scientists — in particular, data-parsing and gaming geeks — to sift through the data collected by the Allen Telescope Array, in search of clues that might have been overlooked by the institute’s automated search software. Sample data will be posted this spring, but the institute eventually plans to stream real-time data through the web site. Additionally, SETIQuest makes its signal-detection algorithm open-source, by putting the code up on the website and inviting coders from all over the planet to take a crack at rewriting and improving it.
Even if you’re not a techie, you can still help. You can volunteer to be a part of SETI@Home effort, a massive cloud computing project being coordinated by the University of California-Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. The best part is you don’t actually have to do much of anything, except download and install a screensaver program on your PC that allows Seti@Home to engage in CPU scavenging. Unused computer instruction cycles from millions of desktop PCs are amassed to create what essentially is a virtual supercomputer. That computing capability is then harnessed to process data being collected by radio telescopes that are searching for microwave signals that extraterrestrial civilizations may possibly be sending out in an attempt to contact intelligent life elsewhere in the universe — for example, us.
Btw, SETI@Home is just one of numerous virtual supercomputing efforts. There’s also the MilkyWay@home effort, which is using donated computer cycles to help create a three-dimensional map of our galaxy by crunching data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. (If you’re not really that curious about the universe or extraterrestrial civilizations, here’s a list of other cloud computing projects that enable you to contribute wasted computer cycles to aid the study of climate change, genetics, and other areas of inquiry.)
Personally, I’d love to see someone set up a similar cloud computing project to aid the search for Dyson spheres, those hypothetical enclosures that really, really advanced alien civilizations might build around their solar systems in order to make more efficient use of solar energy. The infrared radiation from such a structure would be the rough equivalent of a gigantic neon bar-and-grill sign out there in the immense distance of space, if only we happen to look in the right spot for it. From Scholarpedia, here’s an article on Dyson spheres, curated by physicist Freeman Dyson himself.
Another btw — if you’re not the joining type, from Seti@Home’s homepage, here’s a YouTube video from a guy who’s created his own personal supercomputer in his kitchen, built from repurposed PC components. It’s apparently kind of noisy, though.
Don’t miss an all new episode of Naked Science, Hunt for Aliens, this Thursday at 8p et/pt!