So you want to be a Scientist? – by Octavia

IT’S LIFE, JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT…

Okay, so it’s not likely that Mr. Spock is going to turn up sending messages to our computers, moaning (in a very restrained and sexy way) about stone knives and bear skins. We can dream, though…

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) does more than dream. It’s actively looking for Mr. Spock and his non-humanoid we-don’t-need-to-break-out-the-latex-noses-this-time cousins. (Think Horta.) There’s a fuckload of stars out there, and we’re discovering planets circling round more and more of them all the time. The more there are, the higher chance we have of finding out that we’re not – to mix SF metaphors – the only bags of mostly water out there. (Horta excepted.) The chances of coming across them, though, are highly increased if we are actively looking.

SETI uses radio telescopes to scan the sky for narrow bandwidth radio signals. This is based on the idea that aliens out there looking for life with their own version of the SETI programme are likely to do it in the most logical efficient way possible – concentrating power into one very narrow frequency range not only saves on power (Spock’s blood is green for a good reason, you know) but also makes it more likely that the creatures on the other end of the signal can fish it out of al the background noise. This type of radio signal doesn’t occur naturally, so if it’s out there are we haven’t made it, then something else has.

Analysing all that data is like looking for a tribble in a toy store. Previous SETI projects used large supercomuters, until in 1995 a bright spark called David Gedye thought he could sucker a whole lot of folks like us into doing said analysis for them. In effect, internet-connected home computers would download raw data, and analyse it in screensaver mode. Whenever the computer is needed again, the analysis is put on hold until the human computer hauls itself out to the big scary world of the outdoors and leaves the machine to get on with it.

SETI@home is a particularly good example of “So You Want To Be A Scientist (With No Effort Whatsoever)” as it doesn’t require the slightest bit of mental effort on behalf of the researcher (yes, take the fancy title. It’s all the reward you’ll get until your computer finds Uhura and convinces her to do a naked fan dance for you). All you need to do is follow the easy instructions to download the software to your computer, and then you can leave the house and get blind drunk in the knowledge that, by tearing yourself away from Kirk/Janeway time-travel fanfic porn, you’re sacrificing yourself to science. Go, you! You virtuous thing, you.

http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/

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