Some 50,000 people in Japan are currently taking part in a worldwide endeavor to link their personal computers together in an attempt to catch any message from outer space that might signal the existence of another life form. Joining the project are students at Kokushikan High School, a private school in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.

They are among the roughly 2.8 million people from around the globe who may have the opportunity to witness the historic moment of first contact with other forms of life.

It is part of a project first suggested by Dan Werthimer, a professor at the Space Science Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kicking off in May 1999 as a two-year plan, the amazing response to the idea has led to new sponsors, including The Planetary Society, which has largely been responsible for giving the project a new lease on life.

Dubbed SETI, for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, the scheme has the goal of checking for any indication of meaningful communication among the weak radio waves picked up from space by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which has the largest radiotelescope on Earth, with a diameter of about 300 meters. Supercomputers would normally be used for carrying out an experiment of this type, but researchers found themselves short of funds. They then came up with the idea of distributing the data in small bundles to PCs via the Internet.

People who sign up to participate in the project download software from the designated Web site, which automatically analyzes the sent data when their computer is not in use and relays the results back.

The PC user does not need to do anything, and yet, collectively the program participants are effectively doing the same amount of work as a supercomputer.

At Kokushikan High School, complex graphs in vivid reds and blues are displayed on the monitors of the 42 computers located in the school’s computer room as they analyze the information sent from Arecibo.

According to school staffers, students in the science club decided to sign up for the SETI program.

Hiroshi Motomura, who teaches physics at the school, said the project is a golden opportunity to explain to his students — even those with little interest in science — what the Internet is and how it can be practically utilized.

“When I explain that the computers in our room are taking part in a research project initiated by the University of California on the other side of the Pacific, I can see their eyes light up,” he said.

Hisashi Hirabayashi, a professor at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry’s Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science and an expert on the SETI program, notes that the significance of the program lies in its bringing the general public into the realm of scientific study.

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