Mac Musings

SETI@home: Join a Team

Daniel Knight - 1999.10.19

SETI@home is a scientific experiment that harnesses the power of hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

I grew up with the possibility of aliens: Lost in Space, Star Trek, even Superman (remember, he's from Krypton).

In fifth grade, I became a voracious science fiction reader, especially enjoying Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Later I got hooked on Isaac Asimov and Star Trek reruns (three times a day!). In college I discovered Larry Niven and Known Space. Still later, Star Trek returned with a movie and The Next Generation. Today I'm a moderate X-Files fan, love Star Trek: Voyager, still enjoy Larry Niven's books, and can hardly wait for one of science fiction's all time great novels, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, to be made into a movie.

ET, Phone Home

What War of the Worlds did to make us fear alien invasion, Star Trek attempted to undo with the IDIC philosophy (infinite diversity in infinite combination). We accepted Mr. Spock, put up with Klingons, wondered about Romulans, and found that some alien species were quite enlightened.

But it was probably little ET that made us love extraterrestrials. He wasn't exactly cute, but neither was he threatening. His plight - his need to phone home - touched us, as did his desire to help others and his apparent death.

If ET were here, he would try to phone home. But if ET is out there, does it mean he is trying to contact other intelligent life?


That's the question behind SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. Based on the assumption that if there is life out there, they will try to broadcast their presence, SETI has been looking for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe for years.

And since May 1999, personal computer users around the world have joined the effort, in what SETI@home describes as "earth's largest super computer." Okay, it's really more of a cluster, but the net result of over 1.3 million users has crunched over 34 million work units and invested over 98,000 years of CPU time. The recent average rate of 6.74 TeraFLOPs/sec., definitely putting the worldwide total in true supercomputer space.

What Is SETI@home?

SETI@home is a team effort - and a piece of software. The Mac version of the software is a control panel that can be launched as a program or run as a screen saver. The first time you launch it, SETI@home prompts you for some settings and has you create a user account. Once that's established, it will download the first work unit and analyze data whenever you launch SETI@home or the screen save kicks in. (Be sure to disable any other screen saver when using SETI@home as a screen saver.)

When each work unit is done, SETI@home connects to the central server, relays its results, and downloads the next work unit.

Why Join?

To find ET? To promote the Mac as a powerful computing platform? To be part of the biggest community of computer users in history?

I'd like to think there is intelligent life out there and that it's not too alien for us to communicate with. But I'm not holding my breath. We could be alone in the universe.

I'm part of SETI@home because I think it would be incredible to find intelligent life out there, but even more to support my friends at The Mac Observer, an excellent Mac website and one of the Top 100 teams involved in SETI@home. So rather than form a Low End Mac team and wallow at the bottom of the standings, I'm throwing my support behind Team Mac Observer. (Other Mac teams are listed below.)

SETI@home requires a lot of power. The G4/400s we have at work take about 11 hours to crunch one work unit. The G3/300s, about 17 hours. My SuperMac J700 with a 250 MHz G3 card takes over 20 hours. I estimated a SuperMac C500 (200 MHz 603e) at about 80 hours and project somewhere around 300 hours of CPU time for a Power Mac 6100. (There's even a 68K version of SETI@home!)

If you want to crunch work units in a timely fashion, I'd suggest at the very least a 604-based machine, and preferably a fast G3 or G4. But even the older, slower Macs and clones will plod through the work units, contribute to the effort, and be part of something huge.

All the information you could want about SETI@home, downloading the software, joining a team, and checking stats are in the following links.