I Unplugged to…

timeshipsMy combining of Unplugging Day and World Book Day worked pretty well, although staying offline is certainly a challenge. I have now churned my way through half of Stephen Baxter’s book The Time Ships, I also got some work done outside and contemplated further my computer usage (more on that later).

The book is a sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and I’m quite enjoying it. First we travelled back into the future, seemingly heading for the time and place we had left with the Morlocks and Eloi, but find ourselves in a different one, but still with Morlocks.

Here Baxter uses the ideas about future civilisations that might one day harness the sun’s energy by means of a Dyson Sphere, although he never calls it that.

A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure that completely encompasses a star and captures a large percentage of its power output. The concept is a thought experiment that attempts to explain how a spacefaring civilization would meet its energy requirements once those requirements exceed what can be generated from the home planet’s resources alone. Only a tiny fraction of a star’s energy emissions reach the surface of any orbiting planet. Building structures encircling a star would enable a civilization to harvest far more energy.

The first contemporary description of the structure was by Olaf Stapledon in his science fiction novel Star Maker (1937), in which he described “every solar system… surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use.”The concept was later popularized by Freeman Dyson in his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation.” Dyson speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the escalating energy needs of a technological civilization and would be a necessity for its long-term survival. He proposed that searching for such structures could lead to the detection of advanced, intelligent extraterrestrial life. Different types of Dyson spheres and their energy-harvesting ability would correspond to levels of technological advancement on the Kardashev scale.

That things like Dyson spheres might be expected to exist for civilisations that have progressed far enough, technologically, just as with signals from intelligent life out in the cosmos have not been detected, neither have Dyson spheres.

Regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, I discovered this week that the SETI@home project for which I have been participating in since 1999, would be ceasing at the end of the month, or rather “the volunteer computing part of SETI@home will stop distributing work and will go into hibernation.” This comes as quite a blow, but I’m taking it as more of a wakeup.

It just so happens that I was planning on curtailing my participation in a similar fashion as I have done during the previous years. During the summer months I don’t benefit from the heat my participating computers generate so I deemed it a waste of effort, electricity, and money to participate then, instead powering back up at the end of October. I’d also taken to selling off some of my graphics cards and repurchasing them later on as I would actually earn/save some money due to depreciation. Increasingly though, I’ve pondered relinquishing my participation more thoroughly, or at least when I might do this. I guess SETI@home made the decision for me, it is just peculiar that their end date of the end of March is the same one I had in mind!

I’m wondering now what I do next, and others participants are also.

I am signed up to Einstein@home as I have participated in that project a little also, particularly when SETI@home had some down-time, and the team I’m in with SETI is there also.

Einstein@Home is a volunteer distributed computing project that searches for signals from rotating neutron stars in data from the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors, from large radio telescopes, and from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Neutron stars are detected by their pulsed radio and gamma-ray emission as radio and/or gamma-ray pulsars. They also might be observable as continuous gravitational wave sources if they are rapidly rotating and non-axisymmetrically deformed. Einstein@Home examines radio telescope data from the Arecibo Observatory [as does SETI@home] and has in the past analyzed data from Parkes Observatory, searching for radio pulsars. The project also analyses data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to discover gamma-ray pulsars. The project runs on the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) software platform [as does SETI@home]…

However, if I’d have finally left SETI@home of my own accord I doubt it would have been to switch to another project that I’m not actually passionate about, and that’s the thing: I was excited to learn about SETI@home when I first discovered it, and I found it fun to get as many computers as possible (and later practical) to take part, first getting my AMD K6-2 386MHz involved and a couple of computers at college running the cool screensaver way back in my IT lessons.

Now I have a different mindset and certain values in place that burning through electricity for the sake of fun (even with a dash of science and a splash of technological intrigue in place) don’t accept. It’s similar to how I wasn’t enthused to buy another car to replace my last one, since I realised cycling everywhere was doable; it was only because my sister was replacing her car that I took possession of her troublesome one.

I could be just that I begrudge spending money on things, electricity or petrol, cars and their repairs, and I use these things to delude myself into believe that I actually enjoy trying to live with as little stuff, and money, as possible.

Either way, all there is left to do now is to try and ensure I maintain my 10th position in the UK standings at SETI@home until the end of the month, because it’s getting a little close with someone on my tail. Then I think I’ll bow out and perhaps only take part in Einstein@home as a far more casual, and not so expensive and wasteful hobby towards the end of the year.

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