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Ten Years Of Listening For ET

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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.

Written by ahess247

July 7th, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Some Things From The Vault

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One of the reasons I switched to WordPress was for its ability to easily create static, non-blog pages within the context of a blog-like site. My one unending project has been to collect as much of my published work in one place as as I can, if nothing else so that I have a place where I can find each story. After publishing for the better part of two decades, the job of finding and organizing everything, then building a Web page to house it all, is rather large.

This weekend I built two pages comprised of old stuff. The first will be interesting really only to those who care about the long slow demise of the newspaper industry and its various early flirtations with the Web. During 1997 and 1998, my first job out of grad school was at New Century Networks, a joint venture of nine newspaper companies to combine forces and content on the Web. The company briefly produced a site called NewsWorks that is barely remembered except for its unspectacular shuttering in the cold March of 98. On my last day in the office I salvaged the files of a few packages I had worked on to a Zip disk and have since preserved them in their original format. You can see the results, along with my own reflections on the experience here.

The second page I produced is basically a republishing of my old 1990 Bungee Jumping story written in my last term as a community college student. The realization that I wrote it 18 years ago gave me a bit of a shiver.

I did go on to Bungee jump a few more times. There was one more trip to Blue River Dam in the fall of 1991, and another to a privately owned bridge in 1992, where myself and a friend had organized a film crew to shoot some footage of the group of University of Oregon students we took with us. One of my great regrets in life is that I lost my copy of that tape. If you were on that trip and have a copy, please contact me, because I am desperate to transfer it to DVD and from there to the Web. I jumped one more time in Las Vegas in 2002. It wasn’t quite as fun as jumping in the great outdoors. I had a tape made of that jump but lost it as well.

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December 7th, 2008 at 6:08 pm

What’s Going On Here Anyway?

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Yes, I know. Things look a little different. The short version of the story is that I’ve dumped Blogger, which was fine for blogging in 2003 but which had become rather difficult and unflexible in the last year or so, in favor of WordPress which is a little more 2008. My biggest complaint with Blogger centered around font control, which so far seems to be much easier to control within WordPress themes, once you figure out how to make the stylesheet files accessible to editing. For a comparison you can see the remains of the old site here. Now that I’ve got the new design more or less working, I can re-build the entire site in the way I’ve always wanted to with a little more ease.

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August 24th, 2008 at 1:47 pm

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I’d like to forget this, if you don’t mind

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I get irritable at the end of the summer. It wasn’t always that way. I liked the fall, liked the transition to the new season, a shot at a fresh start whether academically or at work. September always seemed like a clean slate. Now I dislike it, in no small part because of the insistent cultural pounding that always starts toward the end of August around Sept. 11. The image pictured is pretty much what I saw that day, and it seared itself into my brain as I stepped out of the subway tunnel at the 22nd St. and Park Ave. and walked west toward the Flatiron building.

This is the time of the year where people ask me “where were you when it happened?” I was underground.? I didn’t actually see the planes hit, but I saw the buildings fall. I stopped to vote. The primary election for mayor was on that day, and I stopped as I left home, first thinking I wouldn’t bother, as everyone knew that Bloomberg was going to win in the general election. Then I remembered how much I really disliked Mark Greene and figured I’d go to the trouble of voting for Alan Hevesi, not that Hevesi stood the slightest chance of winning or anything, but it seemed important at the time. If I hadn’t stopped to do that, I’d have seen the whole thing, not that I would have wanted to.

I remember the subway ride was uncharacteristically slow, but nothing else about it. I wasn’t terribly eager to get to the office, and it was an incredibly beautiful day, the kind of day that makes you depressed that you have to be cooped up inside doing things that seem important but really aren’t.

So I got out of the subway and walked west, crossed Broadway and noticed something I can only really describe as a buzz around me. I didn’t hear anything that told me something was wrong, but it was just a sense of something out of place, of people agitated for some reason, but I couldn’t place it and from where I was, couldn’t see anything amiss. The first clue was people looking at their wireless phones, that look that says “I’m trying to make a call but can’t get through, let me look and see how my signal is.” Two or three guys were doing this, and as I pressed on in the along the south side the Flatiron building a woman, walking east who seemed to know the guys walking near me, said “This is just insane.”

At this point my pager went off. I reached down to grab it and looked south, at 22nd Street and Broadway. I don’t remember which came first: Did I read the pager, or did I see the holes in the towers? The message was a news alert from CNN that arrived at 9:12 AM. It read: “World trade center damaged; unconfirmed reports say a plane has crashed into tower. Details to come.” I could clearly see that there were two holes, one in each tower, and couldn’t figure out why two holes would be caused by one plane. Of course by this point the second plane had already crashed into the towers ten minutes prior. CNN got around to “alerting” me to this fact by 9:22, by which time I was already in my office.

From that location I was one of several who watched the towers come down from Jim Spanfeller’s office. Someone hadn’t paid the office satellite TV bill, so I and my colleagues couldn’t watch TV news like the rest of the world. We didn’t really need it.

That’s the gist of my Sept. 11 story. I’m not terribly interested in observing with the rest of you the fifth anniversary of what was for me a profoundly unpleasant day. Images of it on TV make me feel shaky and agitated. Seeing the trailer for that Oliver Stone movie made me mad, but I was glad to see no line outside the Zeigfeld theater where it is playing.

I want to get over it. It’s the rest of the country that insists on dredging up old video tape and pictures and survivors tales and permeating the media with it all. I don’t want to weep and shed tears while watching stupid and TV documentaries. I’d like to forget it, and frankly I wish those of you who insist on partaking in this cultural weep-fest, buying special anniversary editions of magazines and watching TV documentary specials about it all would find something with which else to entertain yourselves. I have a better idea: I you want to properly remember the World Trade Center towers go rent “The Cruise”. I found a clip from that neglected 1998 documentary on Youtube, and it appears below.

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September 6th, 2006 at 9:59 pm

Blog Post on HST makes it to print

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I almost forgot to say anything about it here but I adapted the posting from 26 February into an actual magazine peice. It appears in the “Old Oregon” section of the current issue of Oregon Quarterly, (cover at left) which as far as I know is sent only to University of Oregon alumni. Sadly they haven’t posted the text online.

Though at least one anonymous blogger in Oregon has noticed the strange coincidence I detail in the piece concerning Thompson’s encounter with the late UO campus personality known as Hatoon whose death roughly coincided with Thompson’s. They were the same age, and her death — she was struck by a car while riding her bike — followed Thompson’s suicide by nine days — and occurred exactly 14 years and one day following their strange meeting. Maybe Doc needed some weird people to keep him company in the great beyond.

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July 23rd, 2005 at 7:49 pm