phi (totient) wrote,
phi
totient

serendipity

CNN is reporting that SETI@home has found a strong candidate signal. BBC (quoting my former boss, Paul Horowitz) is reporting that they haven't. There's an interesting story here which neither of them are telling.

SETI@home is a serendipitous project. That is, the data they are analyzing have been collected as a side-effect of other operations that the Aricebo radio telescope was making; the project itself has no control over where the telescope will be pointed. These data are then sent across the net and analyzed as a side-effect of the other operations that the computers in question are (or in this case, aren't) making. The main scientific result to have come out of SETI@home is another serendipitous one: the discovery of natural variable radio sources, like Cepheid variables only on a different frequency. From time to time the data available from Aricebo are of a known radio variable, and some SETI@home participant will get a blip on her screen and post about it in her weblog. That CNN is picking up these stories shows something about the fuzzy line between fact and fancy on the net.

There's a long history of this approach in SETI research due to the difficulty of getting funding, and in fact one of the early projects was called Serendip. And a lot of scientific results have come serendipitously. I'd love to see a story on CNN or the BBC exploring the (real) scientific method using this subfield for an example.
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