"Science, properly practised, can be seen as a kind of 'informed worship'" --Carl Sagan

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Christian SETI Alliance BOINC Team

Citizen, what can you do to explore the Galaxy?

Sorry, owning all seven seasons of "Star Trek: TNG" on DVD doesn't count (although it ought to). But consider: what if you could do something tangible to seek out new life-forms, new civilisations- to go boldly... sorry, couldn't help myself.

As fascinating as the discussion of the implications of intelligent life in the Universe is, what excites me very much is the reality that you or I, or anyone with a personal computer, can actually do something practical. Something that represents true exploration in a pure sense.

This post, therefore, will contain no philosophy but merely some explanations about distributed computing and a rundown of how you can join the SETI@Home program.

Firstly, some basics. Skip ahead if you know this bit.
Distributed computing is one of those things that seems obvious now, but could never have existed until the Internet age. There are all kinds of scientifically interesting problems which involve computing tasks far beyond the ability of any single computer (even a supercomputer) to complete in a reasonable time. Processing radio telescope data to look for non-natural signals is one such task. As Doctor Who used to say, "I do wish I had the time to explain dimensional transcendentalism to you." Well, in this case, I wish I had the time to explain about a branch of mathematics called Fourier Analysis, which interestingly lays at the basis of both SETI and also the clever conversion that lets you store all those songs on your iPod as MP3 files. Trust me, it takes grunt, especially when attempted on this scale.

The pioneers who started SETI@Home in the 90's hit upon the idea of using a computer screensaver to spread such tasks across thousands of ordinary computers- using the "idle" time when the computer is not otherwise doing anything useful. The original SETI@Home screensaver was a huge hit, and the collective power of people willing to donate their otherwise wasted computer downtime to SETI@Home quickly surpassed the processing ability of any other supercomputer on the planet. Spurred by this success, the program enabling SETI@Home eventually branched out, enabling other computationally demanding projects that have arisen in the last few years, such as research investigating protein folding, long range weather prediction, or computer-aided pharmaceutical design. So for those of you who are confused about the difference between SETI@Home and BOINC, that's it. BOINC is now the name of the general purpose application/screensaver you install on your Mac or PC. Once BOINC is installed, you can "subscribe" to one or more of these worthy projects, including SETI@Home. It's simple!

1. How do I get BOINC?
Go to this link and download it. When you run the installer it will take you through the process of creating a (free) login so that your work can be credited to you and so you can choose which BOINC projects you want to participate in. You can tell BOINC to run as much or as little as you like- as a screensaver that only triggers when you're "away", only outside business hours, all the time... it's your choice.

2. I've installed BOINC and I've joined the SETI@Home program. How do I join the Christian SETI Alliance team?
Go to the SETI@Home website and log in with the details you created in step 1. Then, go to this link which is the profile page for our team on the SETI@Home website. There should be a link on this page titled "Join this team".

3. I've joined the Christian SETI Alliance team but want to know how we're doing or what my standing is within the team.
Here are a selection of links drawn from some websites that track the progress between SETI@Home users and teams who feel a little competitive.
A Graph of our team's total credit and number of members:

We look forward to you joining our team. If you've just joined up, why not visit our team forum to introduce yourself and offer some contribution to the discussion here. We'd love to know what led you to choose us. Welcome!

The Cetaceous and the Celestial

I once holidayed on Moreton Island, off the Queensland coast. One of a tiny handful of places on Earth where wild dolphins nightly congregate to be near, and fed by, humans. There we were, I and my wife and young son, standing on a long wharf under the brilliant splendour of a starry southern-hemisphere sky. Below us, in the shallow water, sentient beings were bringing their young to the sandy shore to be fed fish and, I am sure, to gaze curiously up at their distant, landbound cousins. If you’ve ever been regarded by a dolphin, you know what I mean.

Occasionally, the dolphins would break their formation along the line of handlers moderating the queue of people who wished to feed them, wheeling back to chase away an interloping (but entirely harmless) Wobbegong shark in silent but flawless concert, or reprove an errant calf back to within the mother’s watchful gaze. I looked upward to see the warm breeze stirring the palm trees along the beach, and the dunes of the island rising to black silhouette against the velvet sky.

Suddenly, half the sky was incandescent- immediately where I had rested my gaze. A massive fireball, green and white, was streaking across the sky, comet-tailed, writhing. For perhaps four long seconds, a hundred people froze with upturned faces; gasping. The Meteor was significant enough that it featured on the TV news the following night, and there was speculation it had landed, somewhere inland.

Afterwards, on a long walk along the beach alone, I was struck with a powerful sense of… planethood. Of being a citizen of the Cosmos, given a sliver of the grandeur that the Universe is full of, but hidden from sight by the tyranny of distance and human mortality. Friends who know me well will recognise my disorder, which I refer to as a propensity to “come over all Carl Sagan” at such moments.

I held a sense that such wonder as I felt is more than atoms bumping together. That dolphins, palm trees and meteors, along with the delight of my Son’s efforts at sand castle building, were emergent properties arising from the same physical laws that were equally valid near each of the 200 to 400 billion stars I saw above me in the edge on view of our galaxy, one hundred thousand light years across.

This Uranian muse led me further: I became aware of how my love of Science was contributing to my sense of wonder. I was turning over in my head many things- the scale and age of the Universe wheeling above me; the philosophical debate about animal sentience and the nature of consciousness; the Deep Time that freed the sands upon which I trod from their parent rocks; the probability that the colour of the meteor’s ionisation trail was indicative of its metallic composition, the notion that this breadloaf sized piece of rock had probably orbited the Sun since my ancestors were lobe-finned fish, before choosing the very instant I was looking up to meet its end. I imagined that the rock’s entire history- every microscopic perturbation of its orbit, its lonely solitude in the outer solar system, and its precise moment of death, were in some sense purposed. Meant for observation. So I would be inspired to write this, so that you would read it, and so that you could share in the singular sensation it evinced.

At that moment, my heart was full. I gave thanks that I lived in an age where, even though we are only one rung above the ignorance that has characterised most of human history, what we have learned as a species through the application of Science had brought me, for an instant, closer to God.

Later, I wondered at how others might interpret the same things as I had observed, believing themselves to be both sane and wise. Without the benefit of the insights Science have afforded, I might have regarded Dolphins as little more than food, never inquiring concerning their ability to love or suffer. I might have regarded the meteor as an ill-omen, perhaps requiring some kind of sacrifice to propitiate an angry god. The galactic vista spread above my head would be seen as little more than window dressing- the irrelevant backdrop to an entire Universe which was not merely Geocentric, but Homocentric.

Lastly, I realised that there were those- many, in point of fact, who would regard all the Science that was brought to bear to enable my sense of wonderment as suspect, and possibly even evil. The Geology accurately explaining the sandy strata in the cliffs above me would be seen as deliberately false, pushed by those seeking to “do away with God”. The Astronomy purporting to describe a Cosmos of many billions of light-years and many trillions of stars would be seen as, quite literally, diabolically inspired, and eroding of faith. The Biology which shows the evolutionary vestiges of the Dolphin’s Artiodactylic, terrestrial ancestors would be dismissed out of hand as “foolishly based on the wrong worldview”.

Experiences like these have shown me that my Universe is immeasurably grander and honouring to the extravagant creativity of God than the tiny, middle-eastern, pre-Scientific, vengeful god that many people incorrectly presume to extract from the pages of the Bible. The views of such people are as outdated as witch burning and will be looked upon as such by future generations.

So that, in part, is why Christians should support SETI. I will elaborate further on various aspects of this in other posts.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Welcome to the Christian SETI Alliance!

This website has been set up to support and promote the efforts of several long standing scientific programs in the field of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The focus of this particular website is to argue for participation in the SETI by Christians. This may seem like a peculiar and non-relevant overlap of worldviews, but our intention is to use this site as a collecting point for essays rebutting what we regard as a limiting, medievally narrow minded approach to the SETI (and indeed Science as a whole) by others who share our Christian faith, but whom we believe with sincerity, are damaging both civilisation and the Christian faith with their simplistic and wrong headed views.

This is not at all a venue for those who wish to advance crank arguments, such as the one that says that aliens are angels, UFOs are "heavenly chariots", that aliens are depicted in the Bible (particularly in Ezekiel), and we especially want to refute the idea that the basis of the SETI is irrevocably linked to a solely materialistic or atheistic worldview.

Additionally, we are keen to enlist your help in a practical way. The SETI@Home program has been running for many years now and utilises the idle computing power of computers like yours around the world to help sift radio telescope data for signals from alien civilisations. The Christian SETI Alliance is a leading team worldwide in this project and our arguments will gain a higher profile as our rank increases. Look elsewhere on this site for details on how to join us!

Further entries to this website will expand on these topics in turn. Stay tuned!