The truth is, apparently, out there. Well, so says SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. For many years, SETI has been pointing huge radio telescopes at certain portions of sky to sniff out suspect signals. It's looking for anything slightly out of the ordinary, such as alien sitcom transmissions.
The theory goes that because we've been broadcasting television for more than 40 years, the earliest transmissions of I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show have journeyed as far as 40 light years from Earth. There are thousands of stars within 40 light years of Earth, which results in the grotesque possibility that alien lifeforms could have long been following the exploits of our soap operas - goodness knows what they'll do when they learn Grant's left EastEnders. Equally, some kind of Alpha-Centurian Brookside may exist, the transmissions of which could unintentionally be winging their way to our planet.
That's where SETI comes in. Trouble is, it's got loads of data to crunch and it simply doesn't have the computers to cope. That's where you come in with your humble home PC. Desktop PC processors have grown increasingly powerful, to a point where today they'll give your scientific super-computers a run for their money - well, so long as you've got a number working together that is.
We tend to leave our PCs idle while we pop out for coffee or cigarette breaks during the day. Some of us even go home in the evenings. Imagine the neglect of the world's PCs sat around waiting for something to happen while we chat, ironically, about what happened on Coronation Street last night.
As the super-systems at SETI overheated, some bright spark thought about all those bored PCs sat around the world doing nothing and set about developing something to harness this untapped potential. The result is the [email protected] project, announced almost a year ago now, but about to kick into action at the end of April.
Here comes the science: the information collected from the Aricebo radio telescope in Puerto Rico will be chopped into loads of small chunks. A different chunk is then emailed to each one of the hundred thousand or so PC users who have signed up for the project. Each chunk of data is accompanied by a small program which processes the information and emails the results back to SETI, which can then see if an alien has been spotted.
The really cunning part is that the PC only processes the data when it's not doing anything.
While it is unlikely that we'll find life out there, the [email protected] project will hopefully prove that the sheer power of a hundred thousand PCs working together on a single problem will crack it sooner than any super-computer - and it'll be cheaper too. So forget about buying a Pentium III to 'Bring the internet to Life'. Simply plug it in and walk away, content in the knowledge that all that redundant power is actually doing something useful.
Gordon Laing is a freelance IT journalist.
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