Friday, December 30, 2011

Searching for Intelligent Extra-Terrestrials

Do you believe that there is life on other places besides the earth?  Do you believe that there is intelligent life not on the earth (the jury is out on there being intelligent life on earth, I sometimes wonder)?  I certainly believe that there is life on other planets.  I even believe that there is intelligent life on other planets.

The earth is a very special place.  It is our home.  But the earth is not that special.  We have discovered planets around other stars in our galaxy, some of them being almost earth-like, and that search for other planets has just scratched the surface.  Are there planets out there that can support life?  Of the planets discovered so far, the number being hundreds of them, there are very few that might support life, at least life as we know it.  However, there are over 300 billion stars in our galaxy, so I think the chances are good that there are other planets that support life.

Do any of those planets support intelligent life?  There is less of a chance that there is intelligent life on other planets, but I don't think that chance is zero.  However, intelligent life has not been on earth very long.  Earth is about 4 billion years old.  Homo sapiens, our species, has been around for only 160,000 years.  That is not a long time when you compare it to the age of the earth.  Thus when we are looking for intelligent life in other star systems, those planets there may have life, but they may not have intelligent life at that time, if ever, when you consider how long it has taken intelligent life to evolve here on earth.

Does that mean that we should not look for intelligent life elsewhere.  Certainly not.  If we do detect intelligent life on other planets, we will have the answer to perhaps our most important question, are we alone.  If the answer is we are not alone, that can change how we think of ourselves and maybe how we act.  Maybe we can really act intelligent and start solving some really important problems we have, like poverty, hunger, and illiteracy, among others.

Several years ago I participated in the search for intelligent life.  I automatically downloaded data from SETI@home (SETI stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) and processed the data using their software to see if there were non-natural signals in the data obtained from star systems.  I quit that search when the laptop I was using broke, and I never resumed that search on another PC until yesterday.  A couple of days ago, I read an article about SETI (if you want to read that article, click here).  Yesterday I downloaded the software, and now I am processing my first data packet.  At this moment, I am 36% complete after processing for 6 hours, and I have 8 hours of processing to go.  The software runs when your PC is not doing much else.  I don't really think I will get any hits, but the prospect of doing so is quite thrilling.

Will we actually meet aliens or talk with aliens?  I don't think so because the distances between star systems is so great.  However, just knowing that we are not alone may have a great positive impact on our society.


Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

I absolutely believe in alien life forms (which aren't alien, depending on your perspective). I am not sure I want to meet one unless I had a crowd of witnesses, however. I already have the reputation of being a weirdo, and my credibility would be completely shot if I started identifying the aliens among us. "She's obviously watched too many episodes of X-Files." So what? "I want to believe."

My question is, why does UCB need us to crunch numbers for them? And how do they get the numbers? It's possible I am being dense about this.

Brad Tomlinson said...

UCB gets more processing power by distributing the number crunching to other people and other PCs & laptops. The more processors doing the number crunching, the faster it goes. They must collect an immense amount of data from radio telescopes. Also, by involving other people, it makes them feel like they are a part of the project, which they are, and some of them may make donations to help the effort.

Dan Verner said...

Fascinating project! I had not heard about the distributed computing business, but then, I'm a former English major.

Thanks for another interesting blog.

Katherine, I don't think you're a weirdo! I've known weirdos in my time, and you're no weirdo!

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

I'm not a weirdo? DANG! I've got to try a little harder, I guess. :)