Magazine article The Spectator

From Cyberspace to Outer Space

Magazine article The Spectator

From Cyberspace to Outer Space

Article excerpt

I WAS in an Internet cafe in Reykjavik recently which had three personal computers at which people, for a small fee, could send and receive emails. But, when no one was using them, these computers were not idle. They were searching for signs of alien civilisations in space.

Belief that ours is not the only civilisation in the universe shows no signs of abating. Why should it? Only last month astronomers were greatly excited by the news that 12, or maybe 13, new planets had been discovered, bringing to more than 60 the number of planets known to be circling stars in the galaxy. Most of them, of course, are huge gaseous worlds such as Jupiter and seem totally inhospitable to life. These are the only planets known to us because we don't yet have the technology to find smaller alien worlds.

But the time will come, perhaps within decades, when we will have telescopes capable of finding thousands of planets the size of Earth. Some may prove to be worlds at suitable distances from their parent suns - neither too hot nor too cold on which advanced civilisations may have evolved.

Might some of these civilisations be sending out radio signals to advertise their presence? To find out whether this is the case, a vast computer experiment has been started. It involves the biggest single computer network in the world, with a combined speed three times greater than the world's fastest supercomputer.

The experiment costs virtually nothing. More than two million privately owned personal computers around the world are being used, when they are idle, to search for artificial signals among the trillions of bytes of data being collected by the giant radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

I have joined the search myself, and anyone is free to do so. You don't pay or get paid for doing it. All you can hope for is the prospect of everlasting fame if your computer should be the one that finds the tell-tale signal from ETs or `little green men' as some scientists call them. The chances of this happening are, of course, about the same as those of winning the Lottery twice a week for a month, but about 170,000 Britons are engaged in the search. To join in, simply click on to the web address and `open an account'. The key word `setiathome' (or Seti for short) stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at Home.

Processing a block of data from Seti typically takes about 15 hours of computer time. A flashing light at the bottom of your screen tells you when it has finished. At this point your machine automatically emails your results to astronomers at the University of California who send you back a new block, and off you go again.

Will the search ever succeed? The fact is that nobody has the faintest idea whether the universe is inhabited, and one opinion on the question is as good as another. The science of `exobiology' (the search for life beyond Earth) is unique among the sciences for having absolutely no data. To some scientists the fact that aliens have never visited us is proof that they do not exist. But others are convinced by the almost unimaginable number of stars in the universe - one followed by about 22 noughts - that other civilisations must exist somewhere.

So far, no one has established beyond reasonable doubt that any life, however primitive, either exists or has ever existed elsewhere. …

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