Don't get me wrong, I'm not into UFOs, little green men, Roswell and all that. It just that, growing up in a time when man was going to the moon and examining the stars, being weaned on science fiction, it's impossible to not think that there must be other forms of life out there, somewhere.
I'm not alone. When, on May 17, 1999, scientists from the University of California at Berkeley released their Seti@home program, tens of thousands of people instantly downloaded it and started running it. But it didn't stop there -- as of April 2001, some 2.7 million people are running this program, many times more than the developers ever thought or even hoped.
Seti@home is a simple program that runs as a screensaver on many different platforms, and is used to analyze radio telescope data acquired by the SETI program. SETI, short for the "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence," is a radio astronomy program that records data received through the Arecibo Radio Observatory to look for extraterrestrial radio signals. As Brian McConnell says in Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Worlds, it is "the greatest quest for new lands since Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic."
The SETI@home project was a unique breakthrough in computing. It harnessed the idle time on millions of computers around the world, creating the first large-scale distributed computing project. The lessons learned from this have helped spawn other distributed computing projects, such as for AIDS research and genome analysis.
While SETI can be seen as just a pie in the sky project with little hope of success, recent discoveries have helped reaffirm its potential. Scientists have recently discovered several large planets in other solar systems, and are hoping, with new instruments called interferometers, to discover far more.
For a long time, with no evidence of other planetary systems in the universe, the idea of looking for extraterrestrial intelligence was seen as a bit of a joke. But scientists are increasingly confident that many more planets will be found, and that Earth is not as unique as once thought.
Beyond Contact, designed to educate us "about the basic technology required to complete the ultimate long distance call," is the perfect complement for the many people who are curious about this project and want to learn more about how it works, the type of data recorded, the ways data is received and other ways of possibly contacting aliens. It examines how we might communicate with other races if we do, one day, discover that the random radio blips picked up by radio telescopes do indeed have a purpose.
Dealing with the electronic, computing and conceptual issues behind this search, this book presents everything one could want to know about the SETI project and its ramifications. It will interest all those who want to know more about the screensaver they run on their computers, and succeeds in covering this complex topic in a very simple way. This is an excellent read, which combines a wealth of technical information with the fascination of a quest that could, one day, turn out to yield the greatest discovery of all time.
Electronic Review of Computer Books