‘Allo, ‘Allo? Is Anyone Out there?
With a lifelong interest in astronomy in general and SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) in particular, the chance to attend a conference of the SETI@Home project management team in Paris is too good to miss. I book my tickets on Eurostar and a hotel next to Gare de L’Est, a few minutes walk from Eurostar’s Gare du Nord terminus.
SETI at Home is a Distributed/Volunteer Computing Project where processing radio signals to pick out artificial/alien ones, is done by your computer when you are not using it – you leave it switched on and it just runs quietly in the background. If you wish to extend scientific knowledge but searching for Little Green Men is not your thing, then there are 30 other projects to choose from including research into: climate change, proteins, HIV, earthquakes…take your pick. Electricity costs are around 10p a day for a laptop.
SETI at Home is now part of BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) where there are 175,000 active volunteers out of about 4 million registered ones – some people register and do little or no work. Others move, get a new computer and don’t register again &c.
We Got a Data Problem
Radio signals picked up from different radio telescopes (Arecibo in Puerto Rico and Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia) are split up into small data files (Work Units). These are downloaded automatically to your laptop and returned to BOINC when processed. But there is a problem of compatibility. Different data from different radio telescopes is processed at different rates by different computers. Some data can be processed much more quickly if your machine has a dedicated graphics card (important for watching videos or playing computer games) while other data files don’t have this problem.
So in essence, what is the best way to process buckets of data on many different types of machine in 80+ different countries? Time for another meeting – this time in France.
A Stroll in Paris
My laptop suggests Paris is best when seen on foot and the next sunny morning seems to confirm this. Strolling south from Gare de L’Est down Boulevard de Strasbourg towards the Seine, reveals an amazing number of hairdressers catering mainly for African clients and unlike other shops, these are already open. Perhaps because it is another city, one notices many Africans doing menial jobs and depending on the area, plenty of beggars.
Walking south, Paris becomes more genteel and I am at the river Seine. The Eiffel Tower is on the right while I turn left and cross the river with Notre Dame on my left. The street is now slightly uphill and I continue south eventually to Boulevard Arago and the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris which seems to share the same address as the IAU. Business of the latter includes creating standard names and boundaries for constellations and in 2006 downgrading Pluto (only discovered 1932) to a minor planet – to the chagrin of many astronomers.
At the Conference
which is very technical, there are always moments where one does not have to be a computer scientist to enjoy it. For example, Berkeley University of UCLA is not really political these days – unlike the 1960s when it was a hotbed of political activity with Anti-Vietnam war protests, flower power, Turn On Tune In and Drop Out and LSD. 90 per cent of students these days are Asian who just want to get a degree and then a job.
People from CERN who actually hosted the BOINC conference attended. Mentioning that a relative had recently had visited the Large Hadron Collider, a CERN delegate said that to get a ticket for a guided tour, you have to enter a lottery via the CERN website and be persistent. CERN has similar issues with processing buckets of data as BOINC does. Most curious though, is the news that they can’t run as many experiments in winter as in the summer for example, because the price of electricity is much higher!
A huge part of the electricity cost is cooling the many magnets in the 27km ring down to 1.9 K or 1.9 degrees above Absolute Zero – colder than if you took a thermometer to outer space and stuck it outside where the temperature would be about 3 degrees above Absolute Zero.