"I think it's just the open-face fish sandwiches that everybody wants."
Siduri: So what's the relationship between the SETI Institute and SETI@home?
Seth: Cordial. Well, there aren't many SETI experiments in the world. To
begin they figure SETI's all one giant organization, which it's not. SETI's
just an acronym. There are a half a dozen SETI experiments going on. But in
terms of radio SETI, the big ones are right here in the Bay Area. What the
Berkeley guys do, they're just two guys.
Siduri: So there's no formal relationship.
Seth: Well, we support them, we give them a bit of money, because we know
these guys. But it's a different experiment. What they do—I'll tell you
what they do, because it's pretty interesting. If you look up you can see
there, [pointing to a photograph] you see the way this thing works, which is
that there's a big reflector: the radio waves come in, they bounce off, and
they go into here, this buckyball [there's a bit I can't make out here; Seth
is facing away from the tape recorder] boink boink, and then into the
receiver. So that's what we're using. By moving this thing around on these
tracks, we can point to anywhere within 20 degrees of the receiver, and then
you just wait for the Earth to rotate. You get a lot of the sky with this
thing. And then this telescope is pointed straight up and you can actually
see... [voice trails off as Seth turns away again]
But there's a second receiver over here [mumble] so this is an old kind of
receiver, picking up signals in random spots on the sky. We're looking at
stars, but this is just pointed at random spots in the sky. Maybe somebody's
using this thing [the main antenna] to look at pulsars, while this [the second
receiver] is pointed at some random spot in the sky. The Berkeley guys
collect data from this thing. And it's random spots in the sky, and it's
moving around, and they never look at any patch for more than about one and a
half seconds, so they can't use this integration trick. But they get all the
data they want out of it, right? They figure, look, we don't know where ET
is, and random spots are as good as any other spots. And you know, you could
make that argument, nobody knows. We think it's better to look at stars, but
So they collect the data with that thing. And then they just have a setup
over in the control room. And they collect this data and they just send it on
back to hard disks in Berkeley. And then they take about 2 percent of those
data and distribute them on the web for SETI@home. That's how that's done.
It's much less sensitive, that data, and the real problem, actually, for them,
is the followup. Because people find signals of course, just as we do.
They'll find signals. And you're processing this chunk of data, these data
were taken three weeks ago or three months ago, and you find something and
send it back to Berkeley. And so they're running software that notes that,
and just waits for that antenna perchance to be aimed back at the same patch
of sky again, which it will, ultimately, once every two years or so. And it
will say okay, and have that data processed, and compare those data with the
ones that were processed maybe two years earlier. You know, this processed by
Melvin and this processed by Molly, and see if they found the same signals at
the same frequency, in which case they both get the trip to Stockholm.
Actually, even that wouldn't work, because you can work out the statistics,
how often that would happen by chance, just random noise. You have to find it
three times. And then it's probably...
Siduri: But people are falsifying signals, at SETI@home. There have been people
Siduri: Just to get the...
[There's a break here, because we had to switch tapes in the recorder.
Meanwhile, here's an old article about people tampering with SETI@home data:
Seth: Does this mean you're doing this?
Siduri: No, no. No, I'm not, but I was reading about security in peer-to-peer
Cellphone: Ring! Ring!
Siduri: Oh, I'm sorry, that's me.
Seth: This could be the big one.
Siduri: Be quiet. Are you going to be quiet now?
[The phone is quiet.]
Siduri: Um, and they were talking about how the fact that a person is getting no
money from falsifying their end of the system does not necessarily mean that
they won't do it. Like, there's all sorts of other reasons.
Seth: Money is not the only incentive?
Siduri: Exactly. And they pointed to problems that the people at SETI@home were
having as an example of that.
Seth: Interesting. Yeah, I guess that's true.
Siduri: Nobody's getting paid to do this work. But people want to increase their
standings, you know, so they'll just make up all kinds of stuff.
Seth: Lots of reasons other than money. I didn't know that they were actually
faking the data. Because what the guys over at Berkeley normally do, is they
send the same data set to at least three random downloads. So that they
compare returned signals. And if somebody fakes a signal in their data, their
chunk of data, it won't agree with the other two people. There's usually more
than two others, but they would get the other two holders, who will agree but
they won't agree with him. That kind of voting system. So I think that's the
way they try and guard against this.
Siduri: So what's in Stockholm? Why would they get a trip to Stockholm?
Seth: Oh, yes, Shannon, you obviously haven't investigated that. Isn't that
where they give you the Nobel Prize?
Siduri: Ohhhhkay, I see.
Seth: I think it's just the open-face fish sandwiches that everybody wants.
"What's in Stockholm." Not much, I'll tell you.