More than a million people world-wide have signed up with UC Berkeley's SETI@home to search for intelligent life in the universe

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--The popularity of UC Berkeley's SETI@home screen-saver - software that allows anyone with a desktop computer to aid in the search for intelligent life in space - has skyrocketed in the three months since its release, with the number of participants world-wide now topping a million.

While no signs of alien life have yet been found, the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) craze has infected offices and classrooms in some 223 countries since the screen saver was made available on May 17 by a team of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It's truly a phenomenon," said SETI@home project director David Anderson. "One person runs it in an office and pretty soon the whole office is doing it."

Companies large and small, elementary and high schools, government agencies and universities have formed groups to compete to see whose computers can analyze the most chunks of data. The analysis is handled automatically by the screen saver program and the results sent back to UC Berkeley, while participants view the progress on their computer screen.

This success, Anderson said, proves the value of distributed computing, and has encouraged him to look around for other projects that could benefit from this technique. Distributed computing is a way of splitting large computations among many small computers.

"SETI@home is now the largest computation ever done on this planet - we've accumulated more than 50,000 years of computing time so far," said project scientist Dan Werthimer, a research physicist at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory.

On Windows and Macintosh machines, the computer program acts like a screen saver, kicking in when the computer is idle and crunching data collected from a radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the 1,000-foot diameter dish at Arecibo.

"This also is the most sensitive sky survey ever conducted," Werthimer added. "SETI@home is so powerful because we are using the world's largest telescope and we are able to use it continuously, 24 hours a day, by piggybacking on other observations."

Werthimer and UC Berkeley colleagues operate several ongoing SETI projects, including the 20-year-old SERENDIP project (Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations), whose newest instrument, SERENDIP IV, provides the data for SETI@home.

Statistics show that of the million people who have signed up with SETI@home and downloaded the software to let them analyze radio data from space, about 600,000 have completed at least one unit of data analysis, and some 370,000 are steady contributors.

The huge amount of computing power this puts in the hands of the authors of SETI@home is allowing them to tackle even more difficult and time-consuming analyses of the radio data from space. The backlog of data from the Arecibo telescope is rapidly disappearing, and Anderson and his team are currently updating the software to reanalyze data in search of more complex signals. They also are working with outside collaborators to make the software more efficient.

Not that they have had a lot of free time. When the software was first made available on the web, they expected perhaps 200,000 sign-ups. That milestone was passed after only a week, and the team - essentially just three full-time positions - scrambled to expand the capacity of their computers to deal with the surge. Plus, they had to figure out how to support a million users.

"It has been amazing - thanks to volunteers, we have been able to get the software running on any computer on the planet," Anderson said.

The project was launched three years ago with the Planetary Society, in cooperation with Paramount Pictures, providing $100,000 for development of the publicly available software. Sun Microsystems also donated computing equipment and the University of California provided matching funds of $180,000 from its Digital Media Innovation Program. Other sponsors include Quantum Corp., Fuji Film Computer Products, Informix and The SETI Institute.


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