Thursday, May 5, 2011

SETI's a Gamble Worth Throwing a Few Chips At

Hidden away in Northern California, nestled between a highway and the Pacific Crest Trail, lies a huge collection of sleeping antennae.

The forty-two hulking behemoths are dormant, waiting for someone to pay the power bill. Until recently they had their namesake, Microsoft’s Paul Allen, and the budget of UC Berkeley to cover the cost.

Unfortunately, California is horribly in debt, and one of the first things to go was the radio antennae know as the Allen Telescope Array. However, rather than scrap these powerful tools altogether or sell them off to a different state or country, they remain still, ready to pop back into action when the time comes.

They’ll point to the sky, collectively absorbing radio wavelengths pouring in from the heavens, recording an unimaginably huge cache of data to be analyzed later. Most of this data will look like static: Random and useless, much like a TV with no signal.

Fortunately, despite the temporary decommissioning, a wealth of data is waiting to be analyzed, and you can be a part of it. And yes, it’s almost entirely random.

Its purpose is to search for broadcasts, intentional or accidental, from life forms beyond Earth—probably the easiest (and likely only possible way) for us to confirm that they exist. The program is SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Life, and they can’t do it without you.

In 1999 I joined the program, donating my CPU’s spare processing power to downloading chunks of data and searching them for patterns with a screen saver called SETI@home. I never found anything.

In fact, in the entire history of the program, no one’s found anything. Well, that’s not entirely true; in 1977, after looking over the data in a sea of ones, twos, and threes, someone noticed a 6EQUJS. Dubbed the Wow! signal, this is widely considered to be the ultimate achievement of the program to date. Unfortunately, its results have never been replicated.

Back in ’99, I was running a 333mHz processor, which is less powerful than my mobile phone. I imagine that there are more participants now, and many of them are running dual- or quad-core CPUs, but still, no more Wows.

No doubt, when looking at the budget crisis, California politicians and educators decided that this program was not nearly as important as providing welfare, health care, road and public building maintenance, and everything else the state has to pay for. It seems entirely logical to re-distribute millions of dollars to something other than a cluster of antennae silently listening for nothing.

And even if they did notice something, what would be the benefit? No doubt in the minds of those concerned with problems here on Earth, even if a transmission from an alien life form was confirmed, it wouldn't benefit us in any way. We wouldn’t be able to interact with them, after all. If the signal was being broadcast from a thousand light years away, and we broadcast a signal right back, they wouldn’t get it until 3011, and they’d have to be pointing their antenna straight at us to listen, anyway.

Most likely, any alien life form that’s blasting a signal in our direction knows that there’s an H2O-covered globe sitting in the sweet spot just far enough away from the sun that the majority of the water stays in liquid form and that life is likely to exist here. To receive a signal from them that is custom-tailored for us would be mind-blowing, to say the least. They might even be sending a constant loop of solutions to some of our biggest problems: Famine, cold fusion, world peace. It could be the most important piece of data ever received, and we don’t even know it yet. Those universal secrets could be bouncing off of our heads right now as we stare at our computer monitors and search for 20-year-old song lyrics.

However, I like to imagine that we’ll pick up stray results that were unintentionally broadcast into space. In my version of SETI’s first success story, we get an HD signal of aliens getting hit in the reproductive vitals by activity spheroids.

Either way, it would be some of the best money we've ever spent. I feel that it is worth it to keep scanning space for signals from beyond, even if it feels like throwing money on a bonfire. By comparison to other public projects, it’s not really that expensive to maintain: One year of SETI funding roughly equals one interstate overpass. Either way, we’re gambling. Throw money at SETI and fail, and the house wins; if we succeed, it could be the biggest jackpot in human history.

But if we choose not to bet, we’ll never know what we could have won.

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