small logo Editorial

We're Not At Home
by Dr. H. Paul Shuch, Executive Director

Two years ago, in "A Science, Not A Search," I pointed out that there are now several different organizations around the world engaged in various credible forms of SETI research. I am privileged to head up one of those organizations, the grass-roots, nonprofit SETI League. Although we and our various sister organizations share the common goal of extraterrestrial existence proof, we are by no means monolithic, employing a variety of methods and research strategies in working toward that goal. And while it can be argued (and, in fact, is often debated in scientific meetings) which strategies are most likely to achieve SETI success, the simple fact is, we just don't know. Thus, the greater the variety of techniques employed, and the greater the diversity within the SETI community, the sooner humankind is likely to gain entry into the Cosmic Community.

Perhaps the most highly visible of the various SETI experiments is SETI@home, a distributed computing project involving over four million participants. SETI@home is a professional search, to be sure, ably conducted by amateurs. It has afforded the general public an unprecedented opportunity for direct participation in space science. And if this approach sounds a little familiar to SETI League members, it should: your SETI League pioneered the concept of direct public SETI participation back in 1995. Thus, it still surprises many of our members to learn that the SETI@home experiment is not a SETI League initiative.

The SETI@home concept was first articulated by Prof. Woody Sullivan of the University of Washington, at the Capri Bioastronomy Conference in 1996. His notion was that if 100,000 volunteers could be recruited to crunch data with their spare computer cycles, collectively they could drink from the fire hose, keeping up with the enormous output from the Serendip experiment at Arecibo, in near-real time. One of the attendees at the Capri conference was my old friend and former grad school classmate Dan Werthimer, who then just happened to be heading up the Serendip project for the University of California, Berkeley. Dan was quick to embrace Woody's concept, and soon SETI@home was born as a UC Berkeley project, with generous funding from the Planetary Society and various commercial sponsors.

SETI@home succeeded far beyond Dan's and Woody's expectations, as its four million users attest. In fact, its success was nearly its undoing, as the computer resources at Berkeley proved hopelessly inadequate to the task of keeping up with the high level of public involvement. Numerous server and bandwidth upgrades were required, after which the system still continues to go down occasionally due to excess demand. In fact, SETI@home is now the single largest user, by far, of all University of California computer resources. Who says the public isn't interested in SETI?

And where does The SETI League fit into the picture? On the outside, very happily looking in. For SETI@home, despite its stated goal, is primarily an experiment in distributed computing, not radio astronomy. And we in The SETI League are primarily amateur radio astronomers, not computer geeks. So it's entirely appropriate that Dan and his four million colleagues continue to crunch data, and that you and I and our 1350 fellow SETI League members continue to learn and design and build and operate amateur radio telescopes. Different techniques, working toward a common goal, remember.

Sure, most of us in The SETI League participate in SETI@home. It's easy, and fun, and practically free (rather unlike the daunting task of building a radio telescope). But let's not lose sight of our primary mission. After all, if everyone in the world crunched downloaded data, and nobody built radio telescopes to generate it, how useful would those four million computers be?

No, we're not SETI@home. We're The SETI League, the world's largest grass-roots radio astronomy organization, with well over 100 instruments on the air right now, and hundreds more under construction in 63 countries on six continents. Even if you never plan to deploy your own dish, your SETI League membership is helping to make sure that projects like SETI@home will continue to have interesting data to analyze. Dan and his Berkeley crew are working where the rubber meets the road. We're poised where the photon hits the fan.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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