PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000
Briefings
Outer Space

By David Brindley

A Whole New Bowl Game

And now, turning to sports news: Team Husky from the Michigan Technological University remains in first place, followed by Indiana University in second and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in third. But don't discount a big push from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, now in seventh place. What game pitIllustration by Phillip Andersons such a diverse group of schools against each other? Hockey? Football? Hacky-Sack? No, it's the search for extraterrestrial life, better known as SETI. (http://www.setihome.com/ )

Last May, the University of California-Berkeley released the SETI@home screensaver software that lets any Windows or Macintosh desktop computer join in the search of the cosmos for alien intelligence. The program analyzes data collected by the 1,000-foot diameter radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, then automatically sends results to Berkeley. And many universities around the world—particularly technical schools—have formed teams to see who can analyze the most data.

The screensaver has proven popular well beyond academia. More than a million computers worldwide are now using it, and SETI@home is now the largest computation ever done on this planet. We've accumulated more than 50,000 years of computing time so far," says Dan Werthimer, a research physicist at Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory.

As for the college combatants, Berkeley keeps track of how well each team is doing—a sort of Big 100 for the Space Bowl. At last count, Team Husky had crunched and returned to Berkeley 67,778 results, compared with 60,223 results from Indiana University. And despite its home-field advantage, Berkeley was in fifth place with 38,697.

Fast Times at Cyber High

Most of the courses sound serious and interesting: Web Design and Internet Research, International Diplomacy, Electric Vehicle Technology. A few sound more frivolous and fun, like The Tenor Sounded Like Someone Dropped a Rock on His Toe. And they're all offered on the Virtual High School Web site, a project run by the nonprofit, Massachusetts-based Concord Consortium.

Concord, one of a growing number of groups—including universities—offering online classes to high-school students, is in the fourth year of a five-year, $7.8 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It offers about 100 courses through 110 schools. In exchange, each school's students can take virtual classes offered by other schools, says project coordinator Kristin Barr. Concord gives all participating teachers a 26-week training course before setting them loose on the Web.

These cyber-high schools are mostly filling niches that traditional schools, particularly those in low-income areas, can't always afford to reach, like Advanced Placement, remedial, and college-preparatory courses. Concord offers a mix of A.P. and other courses, Barr says.

The company certifies each course before adding it to its catalogue, and quality control evaluations are continuous. There are, however, fears—especially if less reputable, for-profit companies get involved—that not all high-school Net courses will meet necessary high standards. But, then again, not all traditional high schools meet them either.

Genealogy
Family You Can Count On

Retired Minnesota State University-Mankato mathematics professor Harry B. Coonce has proven once again that nature abhors a vacuum. Four years ago, he started a small project that has blossomed into a massive online effort to list all the world's mathematicians. His reason for starting the Genealogy Project for Mathematicians? The information wasn't available anywhere else.

Coonce, 61, was at the Princeton University library reading the thesis of his academic advisor, Malcolm S. Robertson. Because it was not signed by Robertson's advisor, Coonce got to wondering who that person was, since he considered him to be his "grand-advisor." He eventually discovered that it was C. Einar Hille. But unearthing that nugget of information took more digging than Coonce thought necessary, because there was no central clearinghouse. "The project just started to grow from there," he says.

Initially, Coonce was driven by "intellectual curiosity and a desire to see what famous mathematicians would turn up." But he's now convinced the exercise will enable mathematicians to better understand the intellectual history of their subject. So far, the site (hcoonce.math.mankato.msus.edu) lists more than 30,400 names from 400 universities. Coonce thinks it's a reasonable guess that the list will top out at around 80,000. But he admits that estimate could be way too high or way too low.

As the project has grown, money has become its "Achilles' heel." Says Coonce: "I am hoping that at some stage this project will be large enough and viable enough that we can obtain some sort of institutional funding." Until then, it's his bank book and contributions from friends that keep this family tree squarely rooted.

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