Citizen Scientist Gone Wild: IT Guy Goes Overboard in Search for Alien Life

By Darlene Cavalier | December 4, 2009 9:49 am

aliensCitizen scientists–loosely defined as people who volunteer to aid researchers by tagging butterflies, monitoring the quality of water, sorting through galaxies, and more–by and large are committed, curious and enthusiastic about their work. But one citizen scientist has proven to be a little too enthusiastic, and it cost him his job.

Without approval, Brad Niesluchowski, a network systems administrator at Arizona’s Highley Unified School District, allegedly downloaded to every computer in the school district a program that uses Internet-connected computers to search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence in radio communications. The program, known as SETI@home, is a research project administered by the University of California-Berkeley. The free program uses idle computer time to analyze radio telescope data.

Harnessing the power of the school district’s computers, Niesluchowski has been credited with logging 575 million hours of data search in nine years, resulting in a whopping $1.2 to $1.6 million in extra energy use and related computer expenses paid for by the school district, to its surprise.

Needless to say, he was asked to resign.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Japan’s First Lady Claims She Went to Venus, Consorted With Aliens
Discoblog: How To Chat With an Alien: The Official Guide
80beats: Help a Needy Astronomer—Play the “Cosmic Slot Machine”
80beats: NASA Invites You to “Be a Martian” & Explore the Red Planet’s Terrain

Image: flickr / soapylovedeb

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Aliens Therefrom
MORE ABOUT: aliens, crowdsourcing, SETI
  • http://na Rob

    You say “Without approval, Brad Niesluchowski, a network systems administrator at Arizona’s Highley Unified School District”

    He did not need approval, he was the Director of Information Technology, not simply “a network systems administrator” as you claim.

    Do some more research next time and present a less biased slant.

  • Theresa

    SETI@home should not be the main point of this story. The claim of the district that it caused processors to “burn out” sooner is a stretch. The extra energy costs probably came from leaving computers on at night, which *is* clearly wasteful.

    They should have run the program only when computers were on anyway, and when it didn’t interfere with other software. That would be a legitimate and very low-cost way to share the school’s resources, and could actually be made part of the science curriculum.

    According to the linked newspaper article, the district had many other grievances with this employee. But they seem to be inflating the financial side of it in order to back up their decision to fire him. I don’t think this should be used to scare people away from using SETI@home.

  • http://blog.lib.umn.edu/rotty002/nflchat/ nfl thoughts

    Hey what was he looking at, that’s nuts

  • Ben

    “The claim of the district that it caused processors to “burn out” sooner is a stretch.”

    It’s impossible to burn out a modern processor if it doesn’t overheat. On the other hand, if they’re just machines sitting in labs and if the school’s AC doesn’t run at night, it’s pretty plausible that they could overheat.

    “The extra energy costs probably came from leaving computers on at night, which *is* clearly wasteful. ”

    Not exactly. Having the computer run at night isn’t a big deal because it can spin down the hard drive, sleep the monitor and drop usage way down. The extra energy costs came from the processors never idling. If you pull up Task Manager on Windows or run top on a Unix system, you’ll see an “idle” process. That’s not a real program, it’s the CPU turning itself off (partially) to save power.

    “They should have run the program only when computers were on anyway, and when it didn’t interfere with other software.”

    SETI@home runs at the lowest possible priority, so the operating system will never make you wait while it’s processing. It also does very little disk or network I/O, so it’s not making anything wait. But, if you have a program running in the background like SETI, your processor will never switch itself off. So that means that even if you run it while the machines are on, you’re going to be using a lot of electricity.

    Whether or not his actions were wasteful hinges on the question of whether SETI@home is wasteful. In terms of wise use of electricity, it would be best if everyone would just donate some money for SETI to build a supercomputer. They don’t , so given that the science really is important, I think it’s reasonable to have the option for people to donate some cycles and foot the electric bill. But to donate other people’s money for them is theft, and the guy’s lucky they didn’t throw the book at him.

  • Curly

    SETI@home hasn’t found anything anyway. It boggles the mind to think that there is a planet that uses radio waves in precisely the same way we do. If they were doing something beneficial, like Stanford’s folding@home, which is trying to help cure diseases, it might be a different story.

  • Brian Too

    A long time ago I asked for permission to use a work computer for SETI@home. It was not granted.

    No harm, no foul.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Discoblog

Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.

About Darlene Cavalier

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »