A basic human desire is to look for life beyond Planet Earth. We look at the stars wondering if a tentacled creature is gazing back at us and we ponder if life on Earth was spawned by alien bacteria hitching a ride on a meteorite.
We also spend a large portion of our space exploration budget looking under rocks on Mars to see if any creepy crawly fossils can be found.
However, the big question is: Are there any other intelligent forms of life out there? If there is, surely they must be communicating? If they are communicating, perhaps we can hear their signal?
Cue the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the novel techniques being used to hunt for aliens. On its most basic level, SETI use radio antennae to eavesdrop on ET’s chatter, but so far we haven’t heard ET “phone home” (or “phone Earth” for that matter).
One of the key concerns is how to analyze the mountain of data SETI produces and in 1999 the organization came up with a fantastic idea. Using the collective millions of hours of idle time of our home computers, SETI wrote a program called SETI@home that would act as a screensaver on your PC. The technology used for SETI@home quickly spread to other sciences that required a huge amount of computing time to analyze data.
After using your computer, rather than letting the default bouncing ball screensaver load up, SETI@home uses this idle computer power for some good and instructs your computer to search for ET’s signal. Datasets are sent automatically and the screensaver does the rest. In return you get a sexy-looking 3D graphic and a happy feeling that you are contributing to arguably one of the noblest pursuits mankind has ever embarked upon.
Although little evidence for aliens has been discovered, millions of people worldwide are using the system and many have notched up an astonishing amount of number-crunching time.
One of SETI@Home’s “power users” goes by the name of “NEZ,” but rather than being “the one” who detected an alien signal, he’s been detected by the authorities for using too much idle time to hunt ET.
Brad Niesluchowski had notched up an impressive 575 million “credits,” representing the number of hours he’d been using SETI’s program over the last nine years.
How did he do this? Niesluchowski was the system administrator for Arizona’s Higley Unified School District and had the responsibility of downloading software for the district’s computers. He installed SETI@home on all of the district’s computers.
Using the collective power of his mammoth alien-hunting network he was able to become a one-man alien searching powerhouse. However, after being investigated for improper use of district funds and downloading pornography on work computers, the scale of Niesluchowski’s alien hunting endeavors became known.
It turns out that after considering the extra energy use (for the computers to chug away in the background analyzing data) and the extra wear and tear on computer hardware, the school district had inadvertently paid between $1.2 million and $1.6 million to search for alien intelligence.
Needless to say, Niesluchowski was asked to resign.
Although it could be argued that using the idle time on a whole school district’s computers to look for alien civilizations is a great idea, I don’t think that doing it on the sly, notching up millions of wasted dollars in a school district’s budget is what SETI had in mind.
Source: CNET News Cutting Edge