Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, December 3, 1999  |  Number 23
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Talk of the Lab

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Down on the Farm

Fermilab isn't searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, but some of its computers are--in their spare time.

The California-based SETI Institute, whose first research grant came from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has been looking for signs of intelligent life in the universe since 1985. The basic premise is that if alien civilizations exist somewhere in the wide expanse of space, they might be trying to contact us via radiowaves. So, with a telescope in Puerto Rico and a bank of computers, SETI daily scans the interstellar radiowaves for candidate signals of distant tribes.

Reaching out and touching someone (or something) in the universe requires enormous amounts of computer time--over 100,000 years of computer time so far. SETI has recorded over 85 million "candidate signals" and is now preparing to start the second phase of analysis, which will search these candidates for "repeat events." SETI's own computers can't handle all this information, so the institute relies instead on hundreds of thousands of volunteer computers spread across planet Earth, connected through the Internet.

Participants who sign up through the SETI@home project are offered the tantalizing possibility that their computers might just be the ones to detect what the web site describes as "the faint murmur of a civilization beyond Earth." Whenever their computers are on but not in use--when the screensaver pops up, for instance--the machines might be used to download and analyze a 360-kilobyte "work unit" of data from SETI's telescope.

Participants range from prisoners at Fort Leavenworth to students at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, Compaq employees, finance groups and flight simulator enthusiasts.

Among the100 top participants listed on the SETI@home Web site is the Fermilab Burn-In Farm in the Computing Division.

But the scientists aren't necessarily interested primarily in faint murmurs from outer space.

They're interested instead in testing the 150 computers in their PC farm--"burning them in," in geek vernacular, stressing the computers' central processing units by having them "chunk" (more vernacular) through lots of data. Troy Dawson and the rest of the farm's administration team got the test going.

The Computing Division runs other programs to check a computer's network ports and storage drives, but the SETI data are ideal for testing a computer's ability to handle a huge computational load. Pieces of physics code might work, too, but can't always be stopped and started the way they need to be in test runs.

By the burn-in's end, the SETI@home program will have run simultaneously on all 150 computers for 30 days. The test is nearly complete, and already the Fermilab PC Farm has analyzed 600 work units for SETI, which took 37.6 years of CPU time (as of November 23). For that, SETI got 36,283 results.

And for that, Fermilab experiments will get 150 new certifiably tough and computationally competent computers.

by Sharon Butler

last modified 12/3/1999   email Fermilab