Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thursday 2/9/2004When I was young I loved aliens and radio, almost more than I loved chocolate blancmange. Now I am old I've ditched the blancmange habit -- but those other two passions remain.

Thursday 2/9/2004
When I was young I loved aliens and radio, almost more than I loved chocolate blancmange. Now I am old I've ditched the blancmange habit -- but those other two passions remain.

So it was with great delight that I read New Scientist's story about mysterious signals from space. Even nicer is the fact that the report comes from Seti@home, the distributed analysis programme that's been running for years on the world's spare CPU time -- in my case, 11,506 units' worth.

The stories are a little odd, though. The Seti folk give guarded quotes, saying that it could be extraterrestrial -- although that's a long way from saying it's intelligent -- but that what it was mostly was strange. They'll go back to it, they say, and look more closely, but it's far too early to rule out an artefact of the receiver, some sort of local interference or some other systematic quirk. "It's unlikely to be real," said David Anderson, director of the programme.

Somehow, this quote got missed by the mass media and much hoo-hah commenced. I dropped a note to Anderson asking whether there was someone to talk about this, but no -- "There's nothing to talk about!" he said. "We dismissed that signal ages ago."

So much for little green men on their walkie-talkies. However, I did learn a couple of useful facts. First, Seti is back in the picture as a subject worthy of serious science, and you can talk about it and still be a respectable astronomer. It may even get time on new and rather fabulous future devices like SKA, the Square Kilometre Array which will be ten times as wonderful as the Arecibo dish that Seti@home's using.

And the other thing is that running the Seti@home client on your work PC is dangerous. Should you actually find something, your boss will be very surprised to find the world's media camped in the car-park and there'll be a lot of explaining to do in short order. "The aliens made me do it" is unlikely to get you very far…

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