In this post, I’m going to cover some scientific distributed computing projects coordinated through the BOINC and @home distributed networks. For an introduction to what distributed computing is, read this post and maybe the Wikipedia page. Essentially, the BOINC software sends your computer work units to complete, which are sent back to headquarters and combined with other data to aid in the lab’s research. I’ll be covering just 5 projects that I registered with, though there are many. Why should you install the software? If you like supporting science and research, then it is a no brainer: contributing to research is as easy as downloading a file, installing it, and registering with an email and password (no validation required). Once this is done, the client runs in the background using however much processing power you choose to dedicate to it (low, medium, high). Running at medium, the software uses about as much of your CPU as an antivirus scan. It can be configured to run over night, resulting in a sleight increase in your electric bill. If you live in the U.S., chances are you won’t even notice the difference. Here are 5 different projects along with short description that I chose to help:
1) MindModeling (Psychology) – Contrary to what many people think, psychology is not just a qualitative assessment of one’s feelings. Cognitive scientists, for instance, study the brain’s higher functions such as attention, memory, decision making, response time, and so on. By adding and subtracting quantitative measurements of these faculties, scientists are better able to support or rule out competing hypotheses of how people think and learn. Sometimes these scientists create mathematical models which can take as inputs different numerical values (e.g., length of a digit to recall, time spent looking at an object, etc) for experimental conditions and predict the outcome of experiments in the lab. If a model successfully predicts the data gathered in the lab, then the model is supported by the data. By processing work units for this project, you are helping cognitive scientists compute the validity of experimental conditions. This allows researchers to “study the mechanisms and processes that moderate human performance and learning.”
2) NFS ( Mathematics – Prime numbers) – Finding or generating prime numbers isn’t easy. It is one of the most computationally expensive tasks. To determine if a number is prime or not, there are algorithms called sieves (shortcuts, really) that allow researchers to quickly check if the number is prime. Help discover new prime numbers, and perhaps learn some math you never bothered yourself with learning. There is a certain beauty to prime numbers that is only apparent once you’ve looked at the math involved in detail.
3) Einstein@home (Astronomy/Astrophysics) – Remember when news outlets were flooded with reports on the discovery of “gravitational waves”? This is investigating just that, by taking data from LIGO and other detectors. Search for spinning neutron stars, or pulsars, by registering for this project.
4) SETI (Aliens) – Short for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, SETI is a project that analyzes electromagnetic radiation for anomalies, or radio activity that isn’t typical of natural celestial events. Through the use of our own electronic devices, we pollute outer space with many different signals. If there was an alien civilization living on the other side of our galaxy, eventually they would receive our signals (a little slower than the speed of light). And it’s a two way street.
5) Enigma @home – Decode the 3 original Enigma messages from World War 2. These messages were never decoded, so I assume they’re [still] brute forcing it now.
6) LHC@home (Physics) – Help scientists at the Large Hadron Collider process data from accelerating particle and smashing protons.
It is important to know that depending on current government funding policy, department resources, and size of the lab, it is not always easy for scientists to carry out their research. BOINC is cited as the largest distributed computing network by Wikipedia, but this is only the start. As processing power becomes more and more embedded in our lives, we are better able to compute the vast amounts of data we have collected (and in many cased, not fully utilized). Though BOINC and Stanford’s Folding@home are still early in their development, these projects will gain importance as science and computing grow together.
What else is there?
There are many more projects (listed here) — most of them being in bio-medical or pharmaceutical research. Folding proteins is another popular endeavor, with research aimed at ameliorating crippling diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There are simply an incomprehensible amount of ways to fold proteins and create medicinal chemicals that computing these configurations actually helps researchers a lot. Plus, you get the chance to join a community/team once you’ve registered for a project. Cheers!