SETI@home needs you!

By Phil Plait | February 8, 2008 9:32 am

I am way behind on this, but it’s been a busy month. :-) SETI is the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. It’s a project by a phenomenally dedicated and brilliant group of scientists and engineers to search the sky for radio signals from other civilizations. I won’t go into the basis for this here (you can read their FAQ for all that), but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

One of their biggest problems is the sheer volume of data they generate. They probe the sky looking at a huge number of radio channels for a signal — imagine your car radio able to tune in to not 20 or 30 stations, but millions. Billions. That’s what they face.

Some very smart folks at Berkeley realized that home computers could be utilized to process some of that data, so they created SETI@Home. When you are not using your PC or Mac, the processor can be utilized to crunch through the SETI data, looking for that needle in a million haystacks: an intelligent signal (good luck finding one on your AM dial!).

This project has been going on for some time (search the BAUT forum for a discussions of it, including out own BA and UT team)

Right now, SETI is getting a surge of data because their main dish, the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, got an upgrade. SETI@Home needs more computers!

So please sign up. It’s free, doesn’t hurt your computer in any way, and if your computer is the one that finds The Signal, then I imagine they’ll be happy to let you share the glory, too.

Update: Just to be clear, SETI@home is not a product of the SETI Institute; it’s an independent program out of UC Berkeley.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (53)

Links to this Post

  1. the new shelton wet/dry | February 12, 2008
  1. Daniel


    oops, wrong site.

  2. tenacious

    I’m not sure how much help we could actually be. I contributed to SETI@Home until i had a chance bus ride with Seth Shostak. Cool guy. Enjoyed the conversation. We discussed the computing power of SETI and the SETI@Home side project. He agreed that the masses had something to offer, but that optimally signal recognition needed to happen in real-time, not six months later.

    I’ve since stopped contributing to SETI and have instead started crunching data for LIGO, which is headed up by some very ambitious individuals. SETI will find a signal, hopefully within my lifetime, and though I wish I could be part of that, the reality is the signal will be something obvious that will be caught by the people running the analyzers on-site.

  3. No way. I need my CPU time for my atmosphere models, and my system is slow enough as it is without another giant program sucking processor cycles. And in any case, I don’t believe SETI by radio will ever succeed. My guess is that advanced civilizations (and the mean age of a civilization in this galaxy may exceed three billion years) probably don’t use radio to communicate.

  4. Via Barton: “My guess is that advanced civilizations…..probably don’t use radio to communicate”

    If they are conservative advanced civilizations, they do.

    What am I talking about? If they were conservatives, they wouldn’t be be advanced civilizations.


  5. bkallee

    Worthwhile, I will set up a computer that I don’t use anymore execpt for e-mail and surfing. High speed cable and P4 3.2, 2 gig RAM should be adequate. They can use 24/7 if they want. I’ll contact them this weekend.

  6. jonathan

    Sorry, I use my computing power for Folding@Home, and I think it’s a much better cause, as much as I think finding other life in the universe would be awesome.

  7. drow

    there, doing that. have been for years. go team evil!

  8. decius

    Billiuns and billiuns of radio stations.

  9. I split my cpu time between Seti@home, Einstein@home, and CPDN.

  10. Jewel

    I contributed to SETI@home for many years, until I started using a laptop exclusively. I don’t leave my laptop on when I’m not using it, so it’s kind of pointless now. Should I ever go back to a desktop machine I will resume signal hunting gladly.

  11. I used to run Seti@Home and Einstein@Home on the Ubuntu partition of my MacBook, until I got tired of the hard drive constantly spinning up. But I’ll try again – who knows, maybe Ubuntu Gutsy is better than Feisty for this.

  12. I have to agree with Barton about SETI, however. I think the likelihood that we’ll actually detect a civilization via SETI is vanishingly small, even if the galaxy is filled with civilizations.

    How long have humans been on Earth? How long have we been using high-powered radio? How long will we continue to use high powered radio?

    Consider the sum of the answers to the latter two questions against the answer to the first question.

    How long have humans been on Earth? If we count the civilized (using the term loosely) years only, maybe 6000 years?

    How long have we been using high-powered radio? Currently, about 75 years, although we’ve had low-powered radio for about 100 years.

    How long will we continue to use high-powered radio? Probably not much more than 100 years.

    If we conjecture that civilizations are approximately like ours, we can assume that there’s maybe a 200 year window in which civilizations give off radio signals that are detectable at interstellar distances. In astronomical terms, that’s a mighty small window.

    Worse, we’ve really only been looking for those signals for, say, 30 years.

    So we’re talking about a civilization transmitting signals in a 200 year window just at the right time so that the signals, travelling at the speed of light, arrive at Earth during the 30 year window we’ve been able to detect them, while we’re actually looking at wherever they happen to be coming from. A whole lot of things have to really line up well to detect something.

    You have a better chance of getting a lucky hit with the Powerball lottery.

    With SETI, there could be a civilization that is 1000 years more advanced than we are just 800 light years away… and we’d never know. There could be a civilization that is 100 years more advanced than we are located 50 light years away, and we’d never know.

    But, I do give CPU to SETI, just in case… just like I buy lottery tickets once in a while.

  13. Until we have FTL propulsion, we probably shouldn’t hold our breath waiting to discover alien civilizations.

  14. lexcarter

    I have joined team BAUT today…so there.
    Carl Sagan would have been proud of you decius!

  15. Cory Meyer

    I thought SETI@home had been discontinued? (A serious bummer.) Well, if it’s alive and well, it’s time to be very happy. :)

  16. Todd

    Re Barton “My guess is that advanced civilizations (and the mean age of a civilization in this galaxy may exceed three billion years) probably don’t use radio to communicate.”

    Does that mean that humans aren’t advanced, since we still use radio to communicate?

    Keep in mind a few things:

    a) Other civilizations may at some point in the past have used radio frequencies. They take time to travel the vast distances involved. By the time it gets to our location and is picked up, the civilization may have moved on, but that signal way, way back may indicate that they were there and that we aren’t alone in the universe.

    b) We just might be the most advanced civilization in the galaxy, meaning that we probably won’t find anything until some point far, far in the future. Also, any other future civilization may start their own search, when they achieve the technology for it, and find the signals we’re sending out now!

    c) Radio communication is not exactly a horrid means of communication. Just like any other form of communication, it has its pros and cons. Until we actually divorce ourselves from it entirely, I think it’s a little presumptuous to think that an “advanced civilization,” unlike us backward homo sapiens, would use it.

    I’m not advocating for or against SETI, but just saying not to write it off on an oversimplified supposition.

  17. Doc

    What do advanced civilizations use for communication? Giant parrots, specially engineered for their lung capacity.

  18. Buxley

    One of the guys that started SETI@home was my teacher in high school. Now he’s an astrophysicist at Berkeley. How cool is that? :)

    Anyway, yes I’ve been running SETI@home for a long time.

    Is there a Skeptics S@h team? (or a Bad Astronomy team for that matter).


  19. lexcarter

    there is the. BAUT team Buxley

  20. I’m curious what the people who feel that “advanced civilizations” won’t use radio communications think they will use instead, or even what method Earthlings will be using in 200 years?

    Unless you are able to come up with some faster-than-light method of communications, wouldn’t you expect communications to use some sort of EM energy? And wouldn’t you expect them to use, for interplanetary communications at least, portions of the spectrum which are relatively “quiet” from background noise?

  21. Andy C

    I’ve been running SETI@home for quite a while now, and via the BOINC Manager I also contribute to, Einstein@home, LHC@home, QMC@Home, and Cosmology@Home. I used to contribute to ABC@home, uFluids, Spinhenge@home, and proteins@home before deciding that I needed to focus my CPU time a little more (mostly due to, where the UK Met Office HadSM3 Slab Model is looking like it’ll run over 1300 CPU hours – Athlon 64 3200+). They’re all great projects, and I’m glad to be able to contribute in the small way that I can.

  22. zer0

    I ran SETI@home for a long time a couple years back. Right now I’m dedicating all the machines in my lab (I’m an IT at a University) to Folding@home, as well as my PS3. I love what the guys at SETI are doing and what they hope to accomplish, but I also like the folding@home guys.

  23. Colin J

    We MAY never find ET, but if we don’t look, we WILL never find them. Subtle difference, but important. It’s worth a little CPU time. Go S@H!

  24. gopher65

    I run Einstein@home exclusively at the moment. There are a few other worthwhile projects out there as well (several of them chemistry and medical related), but I only have enough free computer time to run one project. Otherwise I run the risk of incomplete workunits.

    I don’t consider SETI@home to be a worthwhile project. I’d much rather discover gravitational waves through E@h then find out that maybe some civilization maybe 3 million light years away maybe transmitted an unthinkably powerful signal for maybe 15 straight seconds. Never to be repeated of course.

    I see SETI@home as a pointless exercise. They will never pick up a signal that can be guaranteed to be artificial in nature beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now if something like Orbits@home were to start up, I’d consider that one (I haven’t checked on that one for a while, did it fold)?

  25. decius

    Cheers, lexcarter. :)

  26. Nomen Publicus

    I used to run seti@home on a number of computers, but since they moved to using BOINC, I’ve never been able to find a stable pre-built Solaris client so I don’t contribute any more. Building a client from source is just one long battle with prerequisites :-(

    Considering Sun is a contributor to the project I would have thought that Solaris would have been one of the operating systems with first class support from seti@home.

  27. Sorry, I consider SETI a quixotic enterprise for the reasons others have listed above — any civilization with broadcast technology will switchover to landlines, satellite relays, and direct beams within a couple centuries, and even while they’re still broadcasting, it’s unlikely it’ll be a powerful enough signal to be discernible across more than a few parsecs. And on top of that, I’m not sure what benefit we’ll get from SETI if it does succeed — we’re not alone, neat, but it doesn’t cure cancer or relieve our reliance on carbon sludge for fuel.

    I’d much rather devote my spare CPU cycles to Folding@Home, which should have positive benefits for humanity within my lifetime.

  28. I’m curious what the people who feel that “advanced civilizations” won’t use radio communications think they will use instead, or even what method Earthlings will be using in 200 years?

    We’ll still be using radio in a hundred years, but we won’t be using radio broadcasts, which is a big difference. Broadcasting is inefficient since most of the signal escapes into space — it makes much more sense to send a narrow transmission to a satellite which bounces most of it back down to the planet. For interplanetary communication, it likewise makes more sense to aim a narrow beam at the person your talking to instead of broadcasting in all directions. I expect by 2050 broadcasts will be limited to devices like cell phones and laptops — TV and radio will be done via satellite and landline.

  29. Doc asks: “What do advanced civilizations use for communication?”

    Neutrino beams. Just ask Cal Meacham.

    – Jack

  30. Aside from the question about the radio frequencies, what about the question of signal bandwidth? My understanding is that SETI is looking for fairly narrow band signals. Looking at human spectrum use in the 21st century there are trends in two directions, both the use of greater bandwidth and more complex modulation, such as 256QAM.

    How does SETI propose to detect a complex broadband signal using some combination of frequency, amplitude, and or phase modulation which at first glance would be indistinguishable from noise?

  31. Laguna2

    Sorry my machines are running on:
    Milkyway@home looking for the science behind our galaxy,
    Cosmology@home looking for the evolution of our universe, and
    LHC@home to help building the worlds largest particle accelerator.
    So, no CPU time left for E.T.

  32. I’m curious what the people who feel that “advanced civilizations” won’t use radio communications think they will use instead, or even what method Earthlings will be using in 200 years?

    It’s not a matter of not using radio. It’s a matter of not using high-powered radio.

    Even as humans move into a digital age, what is happening to our RF signals… everything is reducing power. You don’t need a 100 kW TV station when a 50 W digital TV transmitter will get the job done. That 100 kW transmitter could be heard at much greater “interstellar” distances than a 50 W transmitter, even if you ignore the modulation issues.

    The loudest things we have on Earth, radio-wise, are heavy search radars which can fire pulses in the megawatt range. However, we’re even using those less as other detection methods improve.

    So, in 200 years, I would think that even if we do still use radio, it will be low power, with complex modulation schemes and very much indistinguishable from the noise. It’s probably fair to assume that advanced civilizations would follow a similar engineering curve.

  33. Laguna2

    no orbit@home is still pending.
    At least the funding is ropetight. NASA pays the bills for at least three years.
    We expect the first WUs in March, or summer 2008.

  34. Laguna2

    Well, to detect someone, that someone would have to send a signal in our direction. Just the planetary signals are quite ineffective to bridge large distances.
    But if all civilisations behave like we do, everybody is listening but nobody is sending.

  35. blf

    It may be worth pointing out that most (perhaps all now?) of the …@Home projects use BOINC, which itself is a direct result of the original (“Classic”) SETI@Home’s success in proving the concept of massively distributed computing using volunteer’s spare computer cycles. Hence, whilst the SETI@Home project may or may not be “useful”, it has produced something very useful.

  36. Ken B writes:

    [[Unless you are able to come up with some faster-than-light method of communications, wouldn’t you expect communications to use some sort of EM energy? And wouldn’t you expect them to use, for interplanetary communications at least, portions of the spectrum which are relatively “quiet” from background noise?]]

    Maybe they use neutrinos. Maybe they use gravitons. Maybe they use gauge bosons which operate a force we haven’t discovered yet, and won’t discover for another 10,000 years. Maybe they open wormholes and send videophone signals straight to the phone number on another planet they want to contact. The point is, we don’t know what a three-billion-year-old civilization will use. As Carl Sagan put it, our attempts at SETI may be like Pacific Islands a thousand years ago listening for very loud drum signals made on gigantic wood-and-animal-skin drums.

  37. Sorry, “Islanders.” The islands themselves probably wouldn’t be listening.

  38. BovineSupreme

    I’m like Jewel. I used to participate in SETI@Home, since fairly early in the project even, but now I’m using a laptop (backup computer) that gets shut off frequenty. And I’m not going to attempt to run the app in the background on this machine, I want to save as much of my HDD life as possible (It’s already roughly 6 years old, no need spinning it up if I don’t need to). When I’m back to a desktop I’ll return, and probably split time with a couple of other projects.

  39. I used to run S@H for years, but when they switched to BOINC I could never get it to work on my Mac. It has been years since I’ve tried, so maybe I’ll look into it again.

  40. Christopher

    I’ve been running SETI@home for years.

    A True Skeptic ™ I think it’s extremely unlikely we’d ever find anything, but I’m not a cynic so I’m excited at how amazing it would be.

    I often promote SETI@home to the scientists and Skeptics I associate with, and have several times been shocked by this sort of response:

    “I think SETI is incredibly dangerous and naive. We should not be trying to find or contact intelligent life elsewhere. Odds are it would be hostile and come here to wipe us out. We can’t afford to take this risk.”

    To such people I say
    “You can hide under your bed and quake in fear if you like, but that possibility isn’t going to stop me. You can’t stop me. Even if you’re hiding here as quiet as a mouse, someone else is going to be yelling at the top of their voice. Alien contact would be so revolutionary and amazing that there are always going to be people trying to make it happen. If there’s a risk they’ll harm us, we’ll just have to wear it.”

    Obviously most people don’t give the paranoid response. But several scientists and locally prominent Skeptics have. I take this as a reminder that no-one is right all the time. Hmmm I think I’ve even read a newspaper article years back towing the same line.

    “Ogg! Don’t investigate fire! Fire will burn down cave!”

  41. Beelzebud

    I used to run Seti@home but I had a serious problem with the program.

    I never really paid attention to the fact that the windows version’s “screen saver” never moved the text around.

    After about a year of running the Seti@home client, the frames around each section were burned into my monitor for good… Yeah it was mostly my fault for not noticing sooner, but I think the term “screen saver” has certain connotations, and they blew it…

  42. alex

    i think its waste my CPU and time
    maybe other civilization dont care to deal with some weak mind humans (monkeys) or maybe their plans are others like wars interplanetary … maybe they are too busy for us … i mean who knows

  43. Dark Jaguar

    I prefer to use Folding@Home. I think it is a more worthwhile endevor not only because it has more promise but is more immediatly useful. That said I don’t think Seti@Home is pointless and I do want to know, but if it comes down to a matter of how to apply limited resources, folding wins.

  44. I think SETI is a relative waste of time (although the question about ET life is an important one). On my computer I run climate models for; much more useful.

  45. «ßønez_ßrigâde»

    I crunched a few thousand workunits back when SETI@home Classic was going, but I never made the switch to BOINC. Though with your calling, BA, I’ve finally rejoined, but I still prefer the old style of stat comparison. Seeing how many workunits I’ve finished compared to others, and the avg. time to complete them, is much more informative than how much “credit” I have. That may be the reason I never switched over to BOINC.

    It’s a great CPU benchmarking tool, regardless. I avg. ~2 hr/wu on a 2GHz Athlon64 (no O/C), and I’ve seen many machines blow that away; my old PII/PIII boxes can take 6-12 hr (or more) for one workunit.

  46. Once upon a time I was one of the top 500 SETI@home contributors. (Being the assistant sysadmin for my department’s computers helped – you know which screensaver they were all running!) That being said, I think there are better causes to contribute my CPU time. For one thing SETI@home, as I understand it, is a piggyback operation at Arecibo, just picking out parts of the sky near whatever observations happen to be going on. That makes it rather a crapshoot rather than a focused program looking at stars that have some likelihood of harboring intelligence.

  47. Darth Borehd

    I would dispute that poses no harm to your computer. Security flaws have been discovered in the past ( and there may be others.

  48. marko

    Back in 1997, when I had a job at SUSE (“S.u.S.E.” at that time), we utilized most servers and workstations to participate. I think we were ranking as good as #35 at one day. It was a hot summer, working in sun-lit offices which didn’t have air conditioning, and two Linux boxes overheated regularly. Power management was at its beginnings (both hard- and software), and we didn’t worry too much about loud fans. At home, nobody I knew even had ISDN, and SETI@home over analog modem wasn’t fun.

    Nowadays, working for a British outsourcing company, doing Linux/SunOS administration and writing all kinds of “glue” software, everything is measured: power consumption, CPU load, traffic. Our stuff runs more efficient without Boinc (yes, even when “renice”d (8) to the max), so there, no more distributed computing for SETI, sorry. At home, bandwidth wouldn’t be a problem anymore, but I like my Mac mini and my iBook silent. I like the iBook battery to last 4h (compared to 2h with Boinc). Sorry again.

    Darth Borehd’s security argument is also true. Potentially, any sufficiently complex daemon/service task you add to your OS increases security risks.

    Because of all this, I think nowadays this kind of number crunching is best suited for dedicated server/grid-computing farms.

  49. I’ll start running it again when they get it working with Vista.

  50. ChaZ

    You guys should look at this interesting website about how far the radio signals travel in space:

    So, I think it’s a waste of money to look for something that would never reach us anyways no matter how powerful they try to make it.

  51. ChaZ

    Stupid stupid stupid. Came across this link… I don’t know what to say about those scientists anymore.

  52. --

    Yeah well, leave it up to Australia to consider that as a newsworthy article.


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