For thousands of years, humans have looked towards the heavens in wonder — perhaps inspired, perhaps afraid, but always in awe, always questioning: Who created all this? What’s out there? Are we alone in the universe?
Will we ever break free of our little world and find answers to these primal questions?
Finally, we are at the point where such a journey — a virtual journey — can take place. At the forefront of this quest is the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) of Mountain View, California. Some of SETI’s projects have been funded by NASA; others are connected with some of the world’s most prestigious universities. One astonishing project is run by the University of California at Berkeley, which allows anyone, as long as they own a computer, to help advance the search for extraterrestrial intelligence from their own home.
Called SETI@home, it has only been in existence since May 1999 and already 1.8 million people from 224 countries are involved. Here’s how it works: the SETI Institute has full use of the world’s largest telescope, located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. You may have seen it in the films “Contact” or “GoldenEye.” According to Dan Werthimer, chief scientist of the SETI@home project, the telescope is big enough to hold ten billion bowls of corn flakes or twenty-seven football fields. This wondrous behemoth is actively searching for intelligent life in the universe.
But the Arecibo telescope collects so much raw data that it’s essentially impossible to analyze it all. And this is why scientists created the SETI@home program. The idea is to recruit regular folks who have computers with Internet access. Werthimer says, “In the SETI@home program, we ask people for help. So instead of building a giant supercomputer, we ask people with their desktops or laptops to help us analyze data.” And how do they help? By downloading a special screensaver. “Just like a normal screensaver, it wakes up when you’re not using you’re computer — but instead of putting up pretty pictures of goldfish or toasters, it searches through hundreds of millions of signals and goes through a very careful search, looking for signs of life.” It may take a long time, but your otherwise sleeping computer will analyze a 300-kilobyte chunk of data and then, ever so politely, let you know when it’s finished. Then you reconnect to the Internet, send the analysis to SETI, and download new information to be analyzed. There’s even a personal angle: “Everybody gets assigned a different part of the sky — so you get one star, somebody else gets another star,” Werthimer says. You may even become famous: “When you send your data back to us, your name is attached to that data. So if you’re the lucky one who finds that faint murmur of a distant civilization, then you might get the Nobel Prize — but you’ll have to share it with a couple million people.”
The search is on. Professor Werthimer, a True Believer, thinks it’s just a matter of time before we find another intelligent civilization. How much time? That’s the big question.
So do 1.8 million people really believe that “extra terrestrials” exist? Perhaps, but certainly the sheer number of those who are at least curious enough to participate in the program is astounding. Why on Earth would so many people want to join this search of the skies? Werthimer acknowledges that “people have been asking this question for a couple thousand years: Are we alone? It’s kind of a profound question.” Indeed, it’s profound either way. “If we find out that we are alone,” Werthimer says, “that’s very profound. That means life is incredibly precious, and we’ve got to be very careful with what we do here on this planet. And if we find out that we’re not alone, and the universe is teeming with life, and we get the URL to the galactic internet and we start talking to all these civilizations, that’s pretty spectacular too.”
Profound. Incredibly precious. Pretty spectacular. Even a skeptic has to admit that it’s worth a shot. You just never know whom you’re going to run into on the journey across the galactic superhighway.
To join the search for extra terrestrial life log onto: http://www.seti.org