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by Jim Fallgatter, WWWiz Contributing Writer


Descartes, were he able, might not agree, but there is new evidence to suggest that "Quero Ergo Sum" (I search, therefore I am) is a more appropriate, albeit colloquial, creed for the highly connected Netizens of the 21st century. The basis for this supposition is not, although interesting, our propensity to click on the "search" button before we "think," nor our seemingly insatiable demand to search with, and be found by, ever faster, smarter, and more specialized Web finding mechanisms (see the last issue of WWWiz). Rather it is the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of human beings worldwide, in an almost inexplicable upwelling of emotion, embracing as their own, a new Internet capability called SETI@Home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence from Home).

What does all of this mean? There is definitely much more to it than a flash of curiosity over the latest Web tool. Is this headlong rush to search out and perhaps become personally connected to life amongst the stars, a manifestation of our collective relief that the disastrous 20th century is finally playing out? Is mankind subconsciously attempting to make a clean break with our ignoble past and, if only virtually, cast aside the land of our transgressions? There is certainly just cause for wishing good riddance to the 20th century! One hundred and thirty million dead and enough pain and guilt for the whole of the passing millennium, and the next, are circumscribed by these brief 100 years.

 Now, as in Kosovo's fields the poppies grow, this final dose of Balkan angst will hopefully serve as both a back fire and inoculation, least we lose sight of the right road again, against a future spark of hate igniting a third world war. This, and the acrid vapors of threatened nuclear holocaust lingering in the atmosphere of our minds, should steel us against ever being foolhardy enough to walk this path again.


Midway on our life's journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. To tell about those woods is hard - so tangled and rough and savage that thinking of it now, I feel the old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.

— The Inferno of Dante, Canto I


Perhaps the third time is the charm. Indeed, as the war fires of the second millennium burn low, it is more than fortuitous that man has simultaneously launched a magnificently conceived search for truth "out there" amidst the beckoning, non-partisan star fields.

This new crusade certainly has plenty of precedence. After all isn't searching the defining essence of man? From the Hebrew Exodus and Homer's Odyssey to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Herman Hesse's Siddartha, perhaps no picture of human life is more universal than to see it as a journey, a voyage, a quest, a personal odyssey, a search for an understanding of our past and present with the hope of ensuring a greater future.

Now with this ubiquitous availability of Internet connectivity and extraordinarily awesome computational power reaching the hands of millions of people worldwide, our ability to express and give wing to this universal impulse has taken on many unforeseen and creative forms. How very paradoxical it is then, that the Internet traces its roots directly back to the early 1960s, the height of the Cold War, and a solemn attempt, with grave implications for the populous at large, to ensure that what was left of the U.S. military could still maintain communications in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.


 "…If any of you would punish in the name of righteousness and lay the ax unto the evil tree, let him see to its roots; And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless, all entwined together in the silent heart of the earth."

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran


Just in the last several months humans throughout the world, using a recently released powerful new Internet-based application, have joined with explosive zeal and passion in a grand alliance of purpose to pursue the greatest of metaphysical questions: Are we alone in the universe?


"Metaphysics is defined as that branch of speculative inquiry which treats of the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. as the ultimate science of Being and Knowing."

Oxford English Dictionary 


 The enabling technology for this concerted assault is SETI@Home. It is the heavy-lifting end of a project sponsored by the SETI Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, which is the home for scientific research in the general field of Life in the Universe with an emphasis on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Part of this research was the subject for the very popular film "Contact," staring Jodi Foster. Driving the Institute is the belief that it is highly likely that life exists on many other planets similar to ours, both within our own galaxy and beyond. There is new evidence of fertile opportunity for such activity. Discoveries made within the last few years indicate that undiscovered planets may be lurking around 10% to 50% of the Milky Way galaxy's 400 billion stars, and currently it is estimated that there are at least 100 billion other galaxies. Given these unfathomable numbers it would, as SETI points out, actually be "extraordinary if we were the only sentient beings in all the vastness of the universe." However, establishing the presence of planets circling a star is only the first step in determining the likelihood of life, not to mention technological civilizations.

 A sophisticated calculation called the Drake Equation, named after Dr. Frank Drake (now president of the SETI Institute), is the accepted tool used by the scientific community to estimate the number of technological civilizations that might exist in our galaxy. It identifies specific factors thought to play a role in the development of such societies. The equation and factors are as follows:



The Drake Equation:


N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L


N = The number of communicative civilizations. The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose radio emissions are detectable.


R*= The rate of formation of suitable stars. The rate of formation of stars with a large enough "habitable zone" and long enough lifetime to be suitable for the development of intelligent life.


Fp= The fraction of those stars with planets. The fraction of Sun-like stars with planets is currently unknown, but evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the Sun.


Ne = The number of "earths" per planetary system. All stars have a habitable zone where a planet would be able to maintain a temperature that would allow liquid water. A planet in the habitable zone could have the basic conditions for life as we know it.


Fl = The fraction of those planets where life develops. Although a planet orbits in the habitable zone of a suitable star, other factors are necessary for life to arise. Thus, only a fraction of suitable planets will actually develop life.


Fi = The fraction of those planets where intelligence develops. Life on Earth began over 3.5 billion years ago. Intelligence took a long time to develop. On other life-bearing planets it may happen faster, it may take longer, or it may not develop at all.

Fc = The fraction of planets where technology develops. The fraction of planets with intelligent life that develop technological civilizations, i.e., technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.


L = The "Lifetime" of communicating civilizations. The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.




SETI@Home is a scientific experiment that uses the science of distributed computing to harness the power of hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected computers to plow through the millions of megabytes of data streaming into the 1,000-foot radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Anyone in the world with Internet access can participate by running a souped-up screensaver program that downloads and analyzes the data being collected. Legions of crusaders are signing up!


 SETI@Home holds out a promise that is very compelling: "There's a small but captivating possibility that your computer will be the first to detect the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth"


 The SETI screensaver is the visible part of a powerful application designed to take advantage of the unused processing cycles of computers. The way it works is as follows: first an interested computer owner at home, work or school downloads free software from SETI@Home. Then, based on parameters set by the users, usually for times when their computers are idle, this software goes to work sorting through a downloaded 350-kilobyte haystack of deep-space radio data. The objective is the proverbial needle in a haystack that will point the way to our would-be contacts in another world.

SETI Screen Saver Information


SETI provides the user with very interesting information

regarding the block of data (work packet) being worked on. It's is

very important for SETI to always know exact details about this

data so they can keep track of it in their database. If a potentially

important signal is found during the analysis this information

allows the SETI team to go back to that place in the sky and re-

examine the correct part of the radio spectrum to check their

results. The following information is displayed on the Screen



Where am I looking? This display specifies the location in the

sky the data was collected from. This is where the telescope was

pointed, or more accurately, the piece of the sky that was over the

telescope at the time.


When did I look? The Data Info section tells you when the data

was recorded. Note that the time given is GMT (Greenwich Mean



What telescope was I using? This is the source of the data,

collected…namely the Arecibo Radio Observatory. Ruling out

some natural disaster destroying the telescope, this is not likely to



What frequency am I analyzing? Indicates the base frequency of

the data you are analyzing. SETI@Home looks at a band of the

radio spectrum 2.5 MHz wide.




It is all quite mind-boggling. Now you and I can start up our SETI version of RealAudio; perhaps it could be called RealGalactic, and loop out into cyberspace and download a wee bit of digitized space noise to feed our PC and keep it happily occupied while we are gone for a long weekend. Not a bad set-up, participating in a bold new thrust by mankind into the far reaches of the universe, while playing craps and drinking a beer in Las Vegas. I can see the conversations now:


"Yes, now that you ask, I work part time for SETI as a certified Astropaleontologist. Myself and a 'few' other especially qualified experts search for traces of 'footprints' left 100-250 thousand years ago by civilizations trying to contact our hairy forefathers."


On a more sobering note, perhaps first contact will be the discovery of icons from another race adrift amongst the stars. It could come in the form of desperate email sent 25 million years ago by a civilization riding a crowded, polluted and divided planet now devoid of all resources and slowly turning an icy cold as it circles a dying sun. How will we react? Will all of mankind be galvanized into action? What if we race down the radio beams toward the source for ten thousand years only to reach the far end and find, like the snake of disconnected water flying through the air after the garden hose is turned off, an untethered and untraceable interstellar message kite with its reports of final struggle and death having been scattered for eons by the vast solar winds of the Milky Way?

What happens to the fruits of our labor? Upon completion, the results of the home analysis, which highlights any signals that bear closer examination, are returned to SETI and simultaneously replaced by the next packet in the queue. The returned packet is checked off as complete, then combined with other crunched data from thousands all of other SETI@Home participants. At this point the data is either marked for further study or tossed in the dust bin of negative results. This goes on hour after hour, day by day, and now year by year, a crescendo of tiny steps taking us ever forward, just as they always have. The steps are faster now, but then again, the distance is much farther.

The almost unbelievable success of the project to date speaks for itself. In the two months since the general availability of the program, the number of participating users has swollen to over 700,000 from 221 countries worldwide, including many from Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, Albania and Yugoslavia. Almost 400,000 packets of results have been completed and returned, and a total of over 150,000,000 hours (which translates to over 16,000 years) of computer time have already been dedicated to this endeavor.

Fifty-eight different types of computer processors, from PCs and Macs to Dec-alphas and powerful SUN workstations, are involved. About 71% of the work is being done on home computers, 26% at work and 3% in schools. Just how universal the appeal is can be judged by the fact that the single top-producing site at this time, SETI@SUN, has contributed a very admirable 11.5 years of computing time. This amounts to only .007 percent of the total 16,000 years.

What is to be thought of such staggering numbers reached so quickly? What say the sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and religious leaders? For the latter, with hard over positions on time, space and man's preeminence, it may be time to make a list of the best spinmiesters available.

Who should have title to the valuable information ET may be sending our way? Has SETI unleashed the 21st-century equivalent of the California Gold Rush? Will the profit motive have corporations and governments joining in to turn over every celestial stone within 10,000 light years? Has the project been infiltrated by the Chinese yet?

One thing is for sure. We can count on the lawyers having a field day! Is SETI actually a form of deep space mining? What rights does the owner of the lucky PC have? What about a fabulous medical advance on longevity? An 80-year life span may seem a serious infant mortality problem in "their" view. What about the statute of limitations? Can one own but not publish an extraterrestrial's extramarital love letters? What if the "individuals" parted company 1,100 years ago and now live 7,000 light years apart? This could make Mel Fisher's legal problems with the Atocha treasure ship seem like child's play.

We do know that SETI is having to retool to handle the stampede, and that radio wave packets are being snapped up quicker than shares in a very hot Internet IPO. Perhaps we are simply witnessing the first lottery with universal appeal. The entry ticket: a little time on your computer. The draw: sprinkled here and there amongst millions of megabytes of data are appetizers bound to please every palate—Sun Kissed Dollops of Immortality. This could all be very exciting, but in reality most of the world would settle for the discovery of a warm, soothing balm conjured up by the Gods of Hope. An emollient to be applied to the wounded psyche of a generation seeking sanctuary from the cold of the 20th century. A generation aching for stability, security and intelligent life wherever it can be found, and therein the real proof that we are indeed part of a larger plan.

The new millennium comes to mankind as a clean slate. Sensing that soon there will be a bigger picture revealed, shouldn't we take this as a fresh opportunity to correct the distorted self-portrait we have painted thus far? This is a chance for a grand demarcation. A wonderful opportunity to create a sound foundation of community, cooperation and mutual respect worldwide. A solid footing on which to go forth together on our most promising quest ever—to find our destiny in space. The search goes on!


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