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A friend recently brought to my attention the LHC@Home project, a distributed computing project dedicated to analyzing the data generated by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (data totaling 15 million gigabytes a year!), and possibly even finding the Higgs boson. A distributed computing project is basically one that attempts to solve a problem using a large number of autonomous computers that communicate via a network (in the case of LHC@Home and other “citizen science” projects, this network is, of course, the Internet). The overall problem is divided into several small tasks, each of which is solved by one or more computers.

Modern PCs are powerful enough to be useful in solving extraordinarily complex problems, such as modelling the paths of beams of protons. And it’s not even like you’ll notice that your computer seems a bit sluggish and distracted (as human beings often get when thinking about things like the origins of the universe and the Higgs boson), because distributed computing projects use software platforms that only allow your PC’s resources to be shared when your system is idle – i.e. when you’re not doing anything. So you only really notice anything when you’re PC’s been idle for long enough for a screen saver to start up.

I had the Rosetta@Home project (more on that later) installed on my old PC, and I can tell you this: the visualizations that the software creates as a screensaver while working on the distributed project are actually quite mesmerizing. I expect the same will be true of the LHC@Home project.

Rosetta@Home screen saver

If you’re interested in joining a distributed computing network, I’d recommend first installing a software called BOINC – the Berkely Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. The BOINC was developed by the University of California, Berkely, and was first used as a platform for the SETI@Home project, but now it’s used in nearly all distributed computing projects.

The BOINC platform is used by many distributed computing projects

Finally, here’s a list of a few other notable distributed computing projects that you might consider joining:

1. Rosetta@home: Geared mainly towards basic research in protein structure prediction, but the results of this research have vast potential in curing dozens of diseases. Implemented by the University of Washington.

2. Folding@home:  Created by Stanford University to simulate protein folding. Note that this is one of the few distributed computing projects that does not use the BOINC framework.

3. SETI@home: The SETI Project does exactly what its name suggests- Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; it does so by analyzing radio telescope data.  Like the BOINC interface, it was created by the University of California, Berkeley.

4. Einstein@home: Analyzes data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in USA and the GEO 600 (another laser interferometer observatory in Germany) in order to confirm direct observations of cosmic gravitational waves, which Einstein predicted, but have never been observed.

5. MilkyWay@home: Milkyway@Home uses the BOINC platform to create a highly accurate three dimensional model of the Milky Way galaxy using data gathered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. This project enables research in both astroinformatics and computer science.

So there you have it: you can help cure cancer, discover alien life or radically change our view of the physical universe. What’re you waiting for? Screen Savers of the world, unite!

UPDATE: Here’s a more complete list of BOINC projects:

UPDATE 2: I now have Rosetta@Home installed again. Yay, I’m making an actual (although tiny) contribution to Science! I’ll just go put a tick on my List of Things To Do in Life next to that.


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