Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 4/11/2002Alien hunting can be fun! Just the other day, I found a turtle on Mars -- well, it looked like a turtle, it was on a Mars Global Surveyor picture, and people have sold millions of books based on dafter theories.

Monday 4/11/2002
Alien hunting can be fun! Just the other day, I found a turtle on Mars -- well, it looked like a turtle, it was on a Mars Global Surveyor picture, and people have sold millions of books based on dafter theories. But most of my active extra-terrestrial tracking activities are courtesy of Seti@home. Seti@home takes observations from the Arecibo radio telescope, parcels them up into bundles of raw data called work units and sends them out to PCs around the world. These rootle through the numbers and look for ET's signature. No little green men yet, but in two years I've racked up nearly 5,000 work units hunting for radio signals from space. Done my bit for the Galactic Empire, I have. Some people, though, seem to be taking it far too seriously. Not so much the science, which is understandably exciting, but the competitive aspects. Thanks to the ranked user lists on the Web site, people's desire to be better than the rest has provoked a show of pure microprocessor machismo. Somewhat predictably, this has spilled over into cheating -- a variety of mechanisms exist that let you give back results you haven't worked out. So some frankly incredible numbers have been appearing, to the distress of many and the anger of others. "It's ruining the competition!" they say. Excuse me? Competition? It's a pain that one aspect of the project has become somewhat disgraced, raising difficulties for future expansion and taking resources that should be used for something less tacky. But the core purpose remains: the science is fine and if anything it gives us unwashed masses of honest thousand-unit toilers a bit more hope. It can be depressing seeing the stats mount up, knowing that if there is a signal to be found the chances are that one of the monsters will snaffle it first: now I know that those figures contain fakes, it means the science hasn't been done and my work counts for a little more. The odds are redressed, just a little. Valuable lessons have been learned, and one of the great ironies in the search of extra-terrestrial intelligence -- that it tells us more about ourselves than any mysterious aliens -- is repeated once again.

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