VOLUME 31, NUMBER 14 THURSDAY, December 2, 1999

UB teams join search for alien life
SETI@home project uses computer-screen savers to record radio chatter from outer space

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Reporter Assistant Editor

At this moment, computers across campus are analyzing signals from the sky that could be indicators of alien intelligence.

A team of students, professors, staff members and alumni called "UBForce," and another UB group that simply identifies itself as "University at Buffalo," are contributing to a massive search that involves more than 1 million people around the world-linked together by Internet-connected computers-who collectively are trying to identify extraterrestrial life forms by electronically recording and analyzing data picked up by a powerful radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

SETI Both UB teams have established themselves among the top university contenders in the worldwide Internet project, called SETI@home, a project that some say has created the world's fastest supercomputer.

UBForce founding member Scott Harrigan, a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, says it is the most successful scientific experiment ever done using distributed computing.

How does it work?

By downloading the free SETI@home software package at http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu, individuals with any moderately powerful personal computing system can contribute to the much-larger Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project called SERENIP, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations, based at the University of California Berkeley.

The idea is to share the data picked up by the telescope via the Internet so that participants can take part in the monitoring, saving researchers time and money in their pursuit.

The SETI@home software, which runs like a regular screen saver, allows those with Internet access to analyze data or signals detected by radio telescopes-sounds that could give away another civilization-while their computer is idle.

"Through the use of what is essentially wasted computing cycles, the linking together of all these computers has created the world's fastest supercomputer," Harrigan says.

According to student John P. Kavanagh, SETI team leader for the Electronic Media subteam of UBForce, the radio telescope in Arecibo works like an extremely fine-tuned television antennae, picking up strong signals within unnaturally narrow ranges of wavelength and displaying them visually on your monitor when your screen saver is activated.

"The different radio telescopes involved (in the SETI project) around the world point at distant stars and listen for the faint intelligent radio chatter that could give away another civilization," says Kavanagh, who explains that any neighboring civilization within approximately 70 light years that pointed a radio telescope at our sun would be able to hear Earth's many technologies that employ radio frequencies, such as sports talk shows, military communications and television.

Why do it?

Why not? Harrigan says. It's free, it doesn't interfere with work and it uses what would otherwise be wasted computing resources for a legitimate study. Most importantly, it's fun, Harrigan adds, explaining that the project has created a good-natured competition between different units at UB, as well as between universities worldwide, to see who can log the most computing time in CPU (Central Processing Unit) years to the project.

Harrigan explains that the two UB teams are competing with colleges and universities internationally for top spots in the "Top 100 University Teams" on the official SETI@home Web site http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/stats/team/team_type_7.html. Currently, University at Buffalo ranks an exceptionally high 18th on the list, beating out such universities as MIT, California Institute of Technology, Duke, Yale and Cornell. UBForce is ranked 83th. The only other SUNY institution on the list is Binghamton University, ranked 34th.

While both UB groups were conceived around the same time in May, UBForce is made up of more students and individual competitors, while the University at Buffalo team is "more official" and utilizes much larger hardware, Harrigan says.

According to SETI@home's official Web site, the software keeps track of where each piece of data is analyzed, so if a UB participant's computer happens to detect a signal that is determined to be extraterrestrial life, that individual will receive credit as a co-discoverer.

Harrigan, who describes the project as fun, friendly competition, says that members of UBForce recently got together for the first time in "real space" to watch the Hollywood blockbuster "Contact," a dramatization of SETI's quest. He adds that the distributed-computing concept could be of great value to UB students, who could take advantage of such an opportunity by using campus computers for academic projects.

UBForce currently has 68 participants and has logged about 25 CPU years to the project. To join UBForce or to view the group's top 20 subteams, visit its Web site at http://wings.buffalo.edu/philosophy/ubforce.

University at Buffalo has about 44 members, according to the team's founding member Matthew D. Stock, senior UNIX engineer in Technical Services, who says his team has logged about 72 CPU years since the team was created.

"Who knows if (the computers) will find anything," says Stock, "but if they are going to be on anyway, it doesn't hurt to devote some time to the project."

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