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I want to believe

by Jim Fisher

STAFF WRITER

Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

It is very arrogant, to me, for humans to think that we are the only intelligent life existing in this huge expanse of a universe. Some might question my use of the words "intelligent life" when speaking of the human race, but that's another column all together.

Like I said, I want to believe.

In that endeavor, I have taken my pursuit of this belief further than just memorizing every mythology episode of "The X-Files." I have actually begun actively searching for alien intelligence.

In a manner of speaking, at least.

Some readers may be familiar with SETI, or the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Over the past 30-plus years, several groups have been involved with various projects aimed at locating proof of otherworldly intelligence.

The University of California at Berkeley also has joined the SETI game, with Project Serendip. This project uses the world's largest single-dish radio telescope in the world, located at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, to scan the heavens for radio signals. The Arecibo facility has been featured in at least one episode of "The X-Files" as well as the Charlie Sheen bomb "The Arrival."

Project Serendip has evolved into one of the most ambitious and creative uses of the Internet with the creation of SETI@home.

SETI@home is the brainchild of scientists David Gedye and Craig Kasanoff, who realized way back in 1996 that the millions of home computers around the world linked by the Internet would make the perfect vehicle for analyzing the data that is recorded at Arecibo.

On May 17, 1999, the SETI@home project got off the ground and has been steadily increasing users for the past year. In fact, the 2 millionth user downloaded the free program on May 16.

I myself just joined last week, but have already processed more than 100 hours worth of information. Well, my computer has, anyway.

Haven't found E.T. yet.

The program works like this: Signals are recorded on 35-gigabyte high-density tapes at Arecibo and shipped to Berkeley. The tapes are then divided into smaller work units and the information is distributed by a central server to the millions of PCs worldwide that have the software. Computer owners have two choices at this point -- you can leave the analysis program running full-time (only recommended for fast machines) or you can set it up as a screen saver.

I use the screen saver option, so basically whenever I am not using my computer it is looking for Klingons or Draconians or whoever may be out there.

Once your computer finishes analyzing the data, it is sent back to Berkeley and your PC downloads another chunk.

This is by far the coolest thing I have seen since www.joecartoon.com.

SETI@home is scheduled to run for another year at which time the Arecibo telescope will have scanned the entire visible sky three times. Berkeley researchers hope to secure more funding for another version of SETI@home.

For a project that was not well-publicized, the numbers are staggering.

Users from 226 countries and territories around the world have devoted more than 280,000 years of computer time to the effort.

The screensaver software is quite small, less than one megabyte, and takes just a few minutes to download and install. I highly recommend this useful, and colorful, program. Just think, if your machine discovers evidence of intelligent alien radio signals, you get to claim credit.

Try to buy that on eBay!

If you're interested in joining the search, go to http://setiathome.berkeley.edu or just type SETI into the search field on your favorite browser.

Regional writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446.

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