Your home computer's spare capacity could help scientific research efforts

Knight Ridder NewspapersApril 20, 2005 

WASHINGTON—Would you like to help prove that Albert Einstein was right about gravity?

Sit at home and search for extraterrestrial creatures from an intelligent civilization somewhere in outer space?

Or join the world's environmental scientists working to predict future climate changes in a time of global warming?

These and other scientific opportunities are open to almost anyone with a moderately fast personal computer that isn't being used 100 percent of the time.

They're called "at-home" projects, because they don't use expensive laboratories, telescopes or atom-smashers. Instead, they take advantage of the vast quantities of unused calculating capacity lying around on home computers.

It costs you nothing and you don't really do anything when you take part in an at-home project, which runs in the background on your PC, like a screen-saver. All you see is a picture on your monitor indicating that the program is running.

You won't receive any payment for the use of your machine, except the satisfaction of contributing to scientific advancement. Contributors also earn "credits" which give them bragging rights among their friends.

These projects take advantage of the fact that most of the world's computing power no longer is in supercomputers, research universities or big business databanks.

"Instead, it is distributed among hundreds of millions of personal computers all over the world," said David Anderson, the director of SETI(at)home, a program to "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" based at the University of California in Berkeley.

Since its beginning in 1999, SETI has used a giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico to scan the skies, hoping to find a message from an advanced civilization in our galaxy or beyond.

"The program seeks to answer the question `Are we alone?' " said Dan Werthimer, a researcher at the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley. "Most people already think there is life out there."

At-home computing—also known as "distributed computing" or "public computing"—can provide more computing power than any supercomputer or cluster of computers, Anderson said. "The disparity will grow over time," he added.

By 2015, he predicted, there will be a billion home computers on our planet, most of them idle much of the time. Currently, hundreds of thousands of volunteer PC users in some 200 countries are taking part in one or more of six at-home projects.

The newest, Einstein(at)home, which tries to find evidence for Einstein's theory of gravity waves, got started in February, and already reports about 50,000 participants.

Gravity waves are supposed to be minute fluctuations in the fabric of space caused by violent star explosions or the enormous forces surrounding black holes, places where gravity is so strong that not even light can escape. Volunteers will analyze 12-megabyte chunks of data from a gravity-wave detector, looking for a potential signal that could be passed on to professional scientists for analysis. Einstein predicted gravity would make waves 100 years ago, but they haven't been detected yet.

"We wouldn't have been able to do it without them. We don't have enough computers," said Bruce Allen of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the chief investigator on the project.

Other at-home projects are:

_LHC(at)home: LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, is a huge underground atomic-particle accelerator that's nearing completion in Geneva. Home computers simulate how the microscopic particles will travel through a 17 mile-long circular tunnel, so that the magnets controlling the beam can be calibrated precisely. A personal computer can calculate a million loops around the tunnel in 10 hours.

_Folding(at)home: This program studies the myriad ways that proteins, the building blocks of all living things, can fold into complex shapes that determine their function. When proteins misfold, they can cause diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and "mad cow."

_Predictor(at)home: This is another project to predict the shape a protein will take when it folds up. Charles Brooks, a molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, said the goal was to "address critical biomedical questions of protein-related diseases." This project uses home-computing power to help analyze trillions of bits of data to improve the accuracy of scientific models of the atmosphere. These models are used to predict climate changes, and are quite controversial. By running the models thousands of times, scientists hope to make them more precise.

So far, more than 5 million people have taken part, at one time or another, in the SETI(at)home program, Werthimer said, and about 500,000 of them are currently active. "They contribute 1,200 years of computing time per day," he said, "but we still haven't found E.T."

However, one form of terrestrial contact has been achieved. "At least three couples have met and married through SETI(at)home communities," Anderson reported.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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