Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Children of SETI@home (and more pigeons, sort of)

For over a decade now, SETI@home has been using CPU cycles that would otherwise have gone to putting pretty pictures up on idle PC screens to instead sift through mountains of radio telescope data from the Arecibo dish looking for unusual signals that may indicate the presence of extraterrestrial life (it also puts pretty pictures on the screen). So far it hasn't turned up anything conclusive, just a few interesting leads, but considering that the computers in question weren't doing anything in particular anyway and people are voluntarily lending their spare cycles to the cause, it still seems like a net gain.

This is, of course, one of the prototypical "crowdsourcing" efforts, and it's worked well enough to spawn a host of similar projects built on Berkeley's BOINC platform. The most popular one seems to be Einstein@home, which looks for gravity-wave signatures of spinning pulsars, but the one that came to my attention recently and led me to look in on the topic again is CERN's LHC@home, which will sift through the ridiculous amounts of data produced by high-energy physics experiments looking for strangelets, magnetic monopoles, Higgs bosons, Elvis sightings and whatever else.

When I say "ridiculous amounts of data" I'm thinking of CERN's statement that
The Large Hadron Collider will produce roughly 15 petabytes (15 million gigabytes) of data annually – enough to fill more than 1.7 million dual-layer DVDs a year!
Just transmitting that data to the target PCs will take significant time, which leads me to the pigeons (sort of). SETI@home analyzes data from the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. According to the SETI@home site, "Because Arecibo does not have a high bandwidth Internet connection, the data tape must go by snail-mail to Berkeley." Not quite pigeons, but it'll do.

No comments: