Archive for July, 2009
A friend called up one day this week and told me to meet him downstairs. He was sort of mysterious about why, but he told me to bring a camera. I agreed and met him on the corner of 49th and 7th and we walked a few blocks uptown. Below is what we saw from outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, as recorded by the CBS cameras, (HD version here) but you can see it how I saw it here and here. Thanks to Thomas for insisting.
Ten years ago today, on a whim, I got involved with the [email protected] project. It was something a certain kind of geek did at the time, and the result was that you had an interesting-looking screen-saver running on your computer.
As you may or may not know, SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life. And the project involves a few million people donating the use of their computer when they’re not using it, to the analysis of data taken from radio telescopes. This is something that used to be handled by supercomputers, and usually on the US Government’s nickel, that is until funding was cut in the mid-1990s. Those radio telescopes are basically listening for any hint of radio signals from somewhere else in the universe — that is evidence of intelligent life.
It’s one of those big questions that people ponder from time-to-time: Are we alone in the universe? I first began to think about it seriously when I was eight or nine. I read “The Star Wars Question And Answer Book About Space” cover-to-cover several times. It contained a section on radio astronomy that was rather sophisticated for a kid’s book. Among other things it covered a basic explanation — but notably no illustration — of the Arecibo Message sent to the star cluster M13 located 25,000 light-years away. It also included sections on the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, and the golden record placed on the Voyager probes, but for obvious reasons, no pictures of the message engraved on the Pioneer plaques.
By the time I was 12 or 13 I had a subscription to Discover Magazine, had seen the film ET, and had also watched much of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on public television. The March 1983 issue of Discover had Sagan on its cover, trumpeting the launch of a new effort to search seriously for life in space. (Summary of the issue here.) Within its pages I first learned about Frank Drake who predicted that we would find intelligent life by 2000, and was first exposed to the concept of a von Neumann space probe. It arrived in the mail on a day when I was home sick from school, and I devoured it, learning more from it than I probably did in any science class I would take.
In his TV series, Sagan made an argument (which I now know was borrowed in part from Drake) that fascinated me. When you consider the number of stars in the galaxy, which is about 400 billion, the chance that there’s life out there, and that it’s intelligent isn’t unspeakably far-fetched, but by a reasonable stretch of argument, plausible. (Though Sagan’s own math is off on one point: In the clip below he says our solar system has 10 planets, when the accepted orthodoxy at the time was nine. It’s now eight. In the early 80s, when Cosmos was made, Pluto was still considered a planet, rather than a Kuiper Belt Object. Thank you, International Astronomical Union.)
In any event, the thought that I could help out in even a small way with the effort of finding a signal from somewhere out there, however remote the chance of success, has kept me mildly entertained these 10 years. As of today my computers have contributed 229,235 work units, comprised of 198.06 quadrillion floating point operations to the effort. (That’s 198,060,000,000,000,000 or an average of 54.2 trillion operations per day.) Plus I’ve earned credit for another 3,053 work units under the original “classic” [email protected] program, which works out to 33,319 hours of computing time.
By [email protected] standards, my numbers aren’t impressive. I rank somewhere at about 38,000th place among its base of users. A team I’m involved with, SETI.USA, has a few members who have reported more than 10 million work units, and many more who have stats north of the 1 million and half-million mark. I’ve never been quite as disciplined about keeping my machines running the program as I might have been. But when I learned that the 10-year anniversary of my participation was coming up, I had hoped to push my machines to the point of having finished 250,000 units, and have paid close attention to my progress in recent weeks. I have four computers running [email protected]: Three at home, including my newly purchased MacBook Pro, and one at the office which runs it only when I’m not there. Obviously I didn’t hit the goal I had hoped for, but will probably see that number before the end of the summer.
I was interested to see the video below of a talk by SETI’s chief scientist Dan Werthimer, and for once to see a face on the other end of the [email protected] process. It’s been fun to have been a small part of the biggest supercomputer on the planet and the largest computation that’s ever been done. Still, no signals yet.