E.T. phone me: Join the search for alien life

GCN Lab director John Breeden is bookmarking SETI’s Web site that will let anyone try to read the sounds of the cosmos.

For years the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been looking for life among the stars. Technology has made it possible so that very soon, everyone will be able to join in on that quest. Who knows, if you personally discover an alien civilization, you might even get to name it (for our Earth-bound reference anyway).

In some science fiction stories, the aliens are out there, just beyond our perception, listening to all of our radio and television broadcasts. And if they tune into some of the sitcoms on TV, I’m sure they will probably decide to stay well away from our crazy planet. I bet they enjoy tapping their spindly fingers along with “Glee,” however.

The SETI program works in the reverse direction. Powerful radio telescopes scan the stars, listening for any evidence of broadcasts made by alien life. Theoretically these could be sent accidentally from a planet, much like Earthlings do all the time now in the course of a day. The signals might also be communications between ships traveling in space. There’s also the possibility that transmissions we eventually intercept could be directed into the universe to get our attention. And the SETI program is a private endeavor, so no tax money is going toward the program, for those of you who think it’s a waste of money.

Recently the prestigious TED prize (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) was awarded to Jill Tarter of the SETI institute. And she had some very interesting things to say about the future of the SETI program. The biggest is that, very soon, everyone can become a SETI researcher.

In the beginning, the entire SETI program was run from custom-built hardware. A few years ago, it expanded to include home computers, which have become fast enough to handle a slice of the load, scanning thousands of hours of recordings to try to find repeating patterns or obvious signs of language. The off-the-shelf hardware actually does a better job than the clunky systems of the past. You can lend a hand in that effort right now with the SETI home program. This involves setting up your computer to automatically download and analyze radio telescope data. Just imagine if your computer was the one to discover alien life — your system would be famous.

And very soon, you can listen to the sounds of the cosmos yourself. All of the data from the SETI program, according to Tarter, will soon be available at setiQuest.org to download or play. The site is not quite up yet, but you can bet it will be one of my favorite destinations once it goes live. Having humans listen for repeating patterns or language might be even more efficient (or more accurate) than having computers do it.

In these ways, everyone can help search for intelligent life outside of our own little blue world. And if we ever find it, without a doubt, it would be the greatest discovery man has ever made.

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