Attempts to hurry up the hunt for aliens dismay SETI's astronomers
- Attempts to hurry up the hunt for aliens dismay SETI's astronomers
By Kurt Kleiner
OVERZEALOUS hackers have tinkered with the software volunteers use to help
search for extraterrestrial intelligence to make it run faster. But the
scientists who run the project say the altered program could be more of a
hindrance than a help.
"I don't think people intend to maliciously hurt the SETI programme, but
we're recommending that people do not use these programs," says Dan
Werthimer of the University of California at Berkeley, chief scientist on
SETI@home is an ambitious attempt to harness the spare power of thousands of
computers to search for signals from intelligent life (New Scientist, 25
July 1998, p 46). Scientists break down observations from the Arecibo radio
telescope in Puerto Rico into 12-second chunks and send them over the
Internet to volunteers. Whenever a volunteer's computer is idle, the
SETI@home program sifts the data for any signals that might have come from
an alien civilisation.
In October, someone going by the name of Olli released a "patch" to the
program--an additional section of code that makes the calculations run much
faster. At least two other patches have followed.
Only a few hundred of the 450 000 active volunteers are using the patches.
But Eric Korpella, an astronomer with the project, says they're still a
problem. "We really want a consistent set of science code," he says.
Critics reply that the SETI managers are turning away much needed help. "I'm
not encouraging people to sabotage the project," says Bradley Kuhn, a
programmer in Cincinatti, Ohio. But since programs can never be perfectly
secure, he argues, the project managers should let users examine the code
and suggest ways to make it as secure as possible.
But Korpella says the project will not release its source code, and the
program is being rewritten to make it harder to alter. However, he hopes it
will also run faster in future--the time saved may be devoted to more
detailed analysis. (From New Scientist, 20/11/99)
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