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Life Beyond Earth

Entry 748, on 2008-04-19 at 21:32:49 (Rating 1, Science)

Through some random sequence of clicks I recently found myself on a part of the BBC web site which discussed a British scientist who has calculated that the odds of intelligent life arising on another Earth-like planet are low (he claims less than 0.01% but without details its impossible to know what that even means). Recent discoveries of extra-solar planets (planets orbiting others stars instead of the Sun) indicate that planets might be very common and that means that life might also be common, but is it?

When Isaac Asimov was asked to write a 1500 word essay on this subject he wrote the words "we don't know" 500 times, which at least was an honest treatment of the subject. We still don't know the answer, but the variables which relate to the problem are becoming better known. For example, the path evolution took on Earth is becoming better understood, we are finding organic molecules in space, and we are finding planets orbiting other stars.

Another approach to answering the question is the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project which has been searching for radio signals from intelligent civilisations using the world's biggest radio telescope. One of the more interesting aspects of this project has been the collaborative project to analyse the data. Because there is so much data and the analysis is so complex the processing needs a supercomputer... or a million average computers connected to a server on the Internet.

I have been processing the data since nearly the start of the project (1999). In the first year my Power Mac 7200 processed 100 blocks of data. During a month or two this year a few Mac Pros I had temporarily processed around 200,000. Computer power has progressed a lot over the last few years!

In the approximately 9 years my computers have worked on this project they have performed around 500 million trillion floating point calculations. To do these calculations by hand (using an electronic calculator) would take every person on Earth a million times the age of the Universe to complete! And I'm only one of 1.3 million users using almost 3 million computers.

So the proof that using large numbers of general purpose computers can do the work of supercomputers at no cost (people volunteer the use of their computers for free) is an important result of the project even if no intelligent life is discovered.

But after all of these years what has been discovered? There have been many interesting anomalies found and further analysis of these will occur, but there's still nothing definitive so Isaac Asimov's conclusion regarding the subject is still accurate.


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