Half a million surfers wait for ET to phone

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IF ET phones home, or anywhere else for that matter, there's every chance his call will be heard not just by scientists with a giant dish at their disposal, but by Joe Soap, on his home computer.

When Seti (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence), the California- based project, announced this month that it was making raw radio data from the most distant reaches of the galaxy available on the internet, nearly half a million people responded.

As of today, the massive task of analysing the material gathered by Seti's experts - who have featured in the Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters Independence Day and Contact - has become the biggest computer project ever undertaken.

Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world are downloading chunks of data from Seti's radio telescope to search for signs of alien intelligence.

It has a "screensaver" which gives everyone the chance to say they were the first to discover a message from an alien civilisation contacting the human race.

The screensaver works through the calculations and e-mails the results back to Seti.

"This is already the world's largest supercomputer," said Dan Werthimer, the Seti project scientist. "We have been surprised by the overwhelming support we have had from people. They have already done the equivalent of more than 2,600 years' computing on a desktop PC in two weeks."

Can it succeed? "We're still planning how to do this, really, and refining it," said Dr Werthimer. "But I'm optimistic that over the next 50 to 100 years we will find evidence of extra-terrestrial life."

n You can join the search for ET at: http://setiathome.ssl. berkeley.edu/