Did you know that your PC (Windows, Linux, or OS X) can help in the search for extra-terrestrial life? As long as your processor and/or GPU is free to crunch large chunks data at some point during the day, you can participate in one of the largest and most successful extra-terrestrial research projects currently taking place.
Distributed computing is an important part of modern research. Not only has distributed computing attributed to several advances in the field of medical science, but it helps large research projects stay under budget. This is especially important given the current economy and budget cuts currently being felt by universities and research institutions. The cost of maintaining a dedicated data center can reach into the millions per year, and distributing this processing across privately owned systems on a volunteer basis is a great way to accomplish the same amount of computing work without the heavy investment.
One common feature many distributed computing projects have in common is a gaming factor. By taking part in the project, you can earn points that go towards your personal and team stats. Teams compete for rank without any promise of reward or prize. In all, these projects are attractive most because they tend to be put in place to accomplish something good. The competitive aspect is an added incentive to keep people interested. For the most part, distributed computing software takes advantage of clock cycles you’re not using for day-to-day tasks. You can usually customize the time and requirements the software needs to meet before it starts cranking away with your processor.
Personally, I have my installations set up to crank away when the screen saver is running or when the computer is idle for more than an hour.
The project I take part in is called SETI@home. SETI@home is one of many volunteer distributed computing projects managed by the University of California, Berkley. By combining the processing efforts of many computers around the world, tasks that would otherwise require entire data centers worth of servers could be accomplished with as little overhead as possible.
SETI stands for “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence” and the SETI@home project is intended to accomplish just that by analyzing radio signals for any signs of intelligent life.
The SETI@home project was made available to the public in May of 1999 and has been operating ever since. SETI@home is available to volunteers through the BOINC software platform. BOINC stands for “Open Infrastructure for Network Computing” and as a software platform it supports multiple distributed computing projects including MilkyWay@home, Einstein@home, and DistrRTgen which are all capable of taking advantage of the GPU for added processing.
During its history, SETI@home has not yet discovered any verifiable sign of intelligence. It has discovered a few anomalies that have warranted further investigation as scientists were unable to pass them off as natural phenomenon. One of these anomalies was discovered in 2004 and has been labeled SHGb02+14a.
Galaxy Zoo takes a little more effort on your part, but it can be a lot of fun to take part in. All you need to do is answer a series of descriptive questions about each image to which you are assigned. Images are of what Hubble has picked up as being a galaxy, and your answers will rate a variety of descriptions that can be applied to the image.
An example would be whether or not a galaxy is smooth or defined, round or cigar shaped, viewed from the edge or not, and whether or not it has a bulge near the center. This data is then cross-referenced and checked for consistency.
This descriptive data is difficult for any computer to determine as it takes an observational mind like ours to determine these vague differences.
So, how does this help find extra-terrestrial life? By assisting in the creation of the largest galaxy shape database, you’re assisting scientists in unlocking the secrets of the Universe. Gaining a better understanding of what we’re seeing in space, be it intelligent or inanimate, can assist scientists in separating the common from the unusual.
Why is the Search Important?
There is some debate between geeks as to whether or not the search for extra-terrestrial life is important when compared to medical science projects such as Folding@home. The fact of the matter is that the discovery of other potentially more advanced life forms would change everything about how we as a planet think about our place in the Universe. Discovery is a forerunner to communication, which itself could change the way we think about science and exploration.
Knowledge is a funny thing. The more we obtain, the faster we can obtain even more. By studying how the Universe works, and seeking out extra-terrestrial life, we are able to better understand how things work down here at home. Stephen Hawking, a world-renowned scientist in his own right, has incorporated what we know about the Universe into a series of scientific theories that help define the way our own world works.
In addition, there is a safety aspect to this type of scientific research. Asteroids have slammed into the Earth before, and could theoretically do so again with devastating results. One of the most well-known theories about the extinction of the Dinosaurs revolves around a global catastrophe caused by a single mass falling to Earth with such impact that it reshaped the terrain and threatened life throughout the entire planet. Reuters has recently reported that NASA has cataloged thousands of asteroids floating near Earth. It seems every year that a new mass is discovered that might threaten devastation should it pass too closely to our home world. Because the sky is so large, it’s nearly impossible for any one data center to calculate the information needed to truly spot any and all possible problems.
Could extra-terrestrial life lend advanced sciences to our own scientific process which could result in a rapid discovery of a cure for cancer? Would this discovery result in a negative overall impact on our society and safety in the Universe? Your guess is as good as mine, but for right now we’ll continue to send radio signals out into the Galaxy in hopes of one day receiving a reply.
You can take part in the LockerGnome SETI team and contribute your clock cycles to the search for intelligent life by joining the SETI@home project and the LockerGnome Team.