Oct. 21, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 3

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    [SETI software] by jason smith
    The SETI@home computer software searches for extraterrestrial intelligence at the workstation of Astrid Fingerhut, a staff member in the Networking Services department at the University. As a member of the SETI@home team, Fingerhut lets the software operate when she is not working at the computer.

    University team 8th in gathering SETI data

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Along with a million other people worldwide, more than 170 University students, faculty, staff and alumni are using SETI@home screen-saver software on their personal computers to help search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. True to Chicago’s reputation for leading the crowd, in less than two months the group gained a top-10 ranking among universities internationally for analyzing the most SETI data.

    “It would be nice if we actually did find some kind of signal of intelligent life out there, but let’s face it, the odds of that are quite long,” said Bob Bartlett, the University’s Manager of Network Security & Enterprise Network Server Administration.

    But on a more practical level, the project serves as a feasibility study for using the Internet as a giant supercomputer for research that requires vast amounts of computer power. “This methodology for making use of individual machines on the Internet really holds huge implications for future directions in computation research,” Bartlett said. “I’d like to see this methodology moved into other realms of research.”

    The University already has contributed nearly 56 years’ worth of computing time to SETI. As of mid-September, the Chicago group had analyzed and returned 27,393 data packets for SETI, or enough to fill more than 1.6 million high-density floppy disks.

    The Chicago group originally consisted of just two students. Then Astrid Fingerhut, a Computer Account Administrator at the University, became interested in installing the software on her computer. But first she asked Bartlett to check the SETI@home software for hidden programs that would allow outside access to her files.

    The program kicks in when a computer is idle and analyzes radio signals from space that are collected by the 1,000-foot diameter Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. “What they send you is raw radio information with a time and a spot in the sky,” Bartlett said. What they get back is information about the characteristics of the signals that might indicate they are artificial.

    After Bartlett checked the program, which is provided by a team of scientists at the University of California-Berkeley, he continued to run it on his own computer. Then he learned that companies, elementary and high schools, government agencies and universities had formed groups to compete to see whose computers could analyze the most data.

    At that time, late June, Bartlett joined Chicago’s two-person group and advertised the availability of SETI@home within his own department and on an internal University e-mail list.

    He also gave the group a quick boost by installing SETI@home on a couple of idle computers that he was preparing to install as campus servers. “They’re very powerful, and they were just sitting there at the time, because we were building the infrastructure around them,” he said. When those computers were no longer available for SETI@home, other University laboratories began lending their computer muscle to the cause.

    The number of Chicago participants and the data analyzed by them rose dramatically. By the end of July, the Chicago group had broken into the top 100. By late August, the group had made it to No. 10, having surpassed such institutions as Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology. Chicago now stands at No. 8.

    Bartlett said the rankings are more fun than meaningful, but it might help create an awareness of the University’s substantial computing infrastructure.

    “We’re not really considered a wired university,” Bartlett said. “This is just not the way we are perceived, and we actually do have quite a computing infrastructure.”

    Bartlett attributes the popularity of SETI@home to human curiosity about the question: Are we alone in the universe?

    Fingerhut said new students who visit her office to open a computer account often comment on the SETI@home screen-saver running on her computer. “Everybody recognizes it or at least is interested in it when you tell them what it is,” she said.

    The Chicago group also brings together––virtually, anyway––people whose interests at the University might otherwise fail to overlap. “It’s just fun to share with them and feel like you’re moving toward a goal,” Bartlett said.

    The SETI@home screen-saver software and related information is available at http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/.