You too can do science!

With almost every household having a computer these days, the sheer amount of unused computing power is awesome.  By just using a few thousand or tens of thousands of PCs, you can run more calculations than one of the huge (and hugely expensive) super computers.  And some scientists have figured this out, and more importantly, how to use this unused computing power.

It’s called distributed computing, and the idea is to basically take some problem from physics of chemistry or biology that is calculation intensive, break it up into lots of little chunks, and then send those chunks to willing participants.  The participants then load a bit of software that acts like a screen saver when the computer is not busy doing anything else.  This software then uses your computer to run these problems until they’re done, and then the participants send the results back to the scientists. 

The first example I’ve heard of that did this was Seti at home.  This program used PCs to sort through tons and tons of noise collected by radio telescopes looking for signals from alien civilizations.  Check out that link for more info.   

Well, I started looking around, and there are lots of other ways you can use your computer to help do real science.  One really cool one is called Galaxy Zoo.  This one is more interactive.  When you sign up, you get a bunch of photographs of galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope.  You’re job is to go through the bunch you have and classify them by shape.  Its pretty cool knowing that yours can be the first human eyes to ever see some of these galaxies.  The interesting ones then got forwarded to real astronomers to take a closer look at.  There are a bunch of similar sites looking for planets, or finding craters on the moon too over at the Zooniverse

A really cool one that I still need to check ous is FoldIt.  This one is actually a game!  Now I’m not a biology major, so maybe some of you can verify I have this right, but in this game you fold proteins.  See, your genetic code, written in four letters in your DNA gets copied and printed out as a long sequence of amino acids.  When these amino acids are connected together in long chains, they form proteins.  But then to work, these proteins have to fold up into intricate shapes to perform their important functions in your cells.  The problem is, there are a ridiculous number of these proteins floating around in our cells.  And each one folds in its own specific way.   To really understand how these proteins do what they do, we need a way to accurately map how a protein will fold form a simple string of amino acids into the proteins.  It turns out that no one has written a computer program that can do this automatically.  But some geniuses found out that by making a game out of it (with achievements and everything!) they can get humans to solve these puzzles.  It’s puzzle solving, and I know some of you out there love your puzzle games.  Anyway, this kind of data is useful in fighting all kinds of disease, so if you have a bit of spare time, check it out

I found a few more of these types of distributed computing efforts here and here.   I think it’s a pretty nifty idea, and its fun to actually be able to help do real science!


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