"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!

1 comment:

qraal said...

Hi Nathan

Years ago we traded emails about Creationism and AOG Churches. Not long after I became an atheist, on my bad days, and an agnostic otherwise. Like you I was a Christian who believed in ETIs and evolution, which was never a comfortable journey. Oddly I didn't become an atheist because of those issues, but rather because of the lack of objectivity in religion and the power politics driven by loyalty to schools of interpretation of Scripture and tradition. Nothing I saw in the Churches, or any faith, seemed rational and based on real evidence. What was good in any religion could be given rational explanations, as could the bad. Too easily - sociobiology explained so much about religion and its behaviour through time.

So what brought me back to God and Christ? A few things I couldn't leave alone - Frank Tipler's Omega Point Theory, which is a rational explanation for God as the end point of the evolution of the whole multiverse. Tipler himself was an atheist when he wrote "The Physics of Immortality", but something tipped him towards Christ in his research. One thing, which I share with him, was the evidence for a real Jesus and a real Crucifixion in the form of the Shroud of Turin. But that's another story.

I think, for me, what convinced me that Jesus has Risen, is that he is risen in everyone who turns to him to change their lives. Reading the historical Jesus books of John Crossan initially led me to utterly doubt, but a comment he made to Thomas Wright in a debate stuck with me - he accepted all the visions of the Risen Jesus as historical events, but in the end how did everyone outside that small circle of witnesses really come to know Jesus was Risen? Through the change in themselves through the Spirit. Christ is Risen in us, and that's how we can know, by the power of love that he has kindled in our hearts, blows on with his Spirit.

I've been reading your other blog and I admire your guts. I want to, finally, do something useful for the SETI effort too.

We discuss a lot of SETI issues at Paul Gilster's blog...


...and I ramble about those, and other issues at my blog...