A pioneering project linking together millions of computers around the world, all in the name of finding out whether we are alone in the universe, turned ten this week. SETI@home (SETI is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) was launched on 17th May 1999 and broke new ground in harnessing your idle computer time to crack some of science’s greatest questions. The internet is now awash with similar projects such as climateprediction.net or the World Community Grid but SETI@home was the first such scientific distributed computing project.
The project regularly farms out data from signals captured by the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico straight to your desktop. Then when you pop out for a quick cuppa it uses your computer to trawl the radio waves for signs of artificial messages sent by alien civilisations.
Unsurprisingly the search thus far has been fruitless. The usual needle and haystack analogies just don’t cut it when it comes to what the project is looking for. For a more in depth look the current state of SETI, including where astronomers are looking and how likely they are to find them, you can read my account of it here. To borrow a quote from it, what the astronomers behind SETI@home are doing is “casting their nets a few times into a vast ocean of interstellar signals, searching for a minute bottle that may, perhaps, contain a tiny piece of paper.” That’s the thing, we don’t even know if what we are looking for exists, let alone exactly where to look for it.
However, we shouldn’t give up hope of receiving an interstellar phone call from our galactic cousins. The work SETI@home continues to do, based wholly on charitable donations, could yet provide the most momentous discovery in the history of science. Happy Birthday SETI@home!