Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Lend your computer's spare CPU time to scientific research

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Look at your task manager now. How much CPU are you using? Probably less than 5%. Most of the time the computers that are used at homes and in offices are woefully underutilized. On the other hand, some research works trying to find solutions to real world problems are facing an acute shortage of computers. These research projects produce such enormous quantities of data that they often lack the computing power required to analyze them. Instead of wasting CPU cycles, how wonderful it would be if we could allow our computers to be used in these research? Such an arrangement is made possible by what is know as distributed computing, and such distributed computing projects has been around for quite a number of years with millions of people already taking part in it.


The idea is simple. Problems that require large amount of computations are broken down into small parts and distributed over a network, like the Internet, to multiple computers to solve. The solutions for the parts are then combined into a final solution for the problem. Anybody with an active Internet connection can volunteer to assist in problem solving by running a free program which downloads data from the project's servers and performs analysis.

Currently, there are over 100 active distributed computing projects going on. Several projects have already completed successfully and more projects are in the pipeline.

Here is a brief list of some of the worthy and more important distributed computing projects that you can take part in and help the cause of science and humanity.

Physics and Astronomy

Einstein@Home — A search for evidence of gravitational waves, predicted in 1916 by Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, but never detected. The project searches for spinning neutron stars (also called pulsars) which are likely to emit gravitational waves using data from the LIGO and GEO gravitational wave detectors.

SETI@home — One of the original distributed computing projects that searches for extraterrestrial intelligence by looking for possible radio transmission from them. Possibly one of the worst DC projects ever because of the idiocy of the logic involved. Nevertheless, with over 5.2 million participants worldwide, it's one of the most successful projects, of course, not in terms of results but by number of volunteers.

Cosmology@Home — searches for the model that best describes our Universe and finds the range of physical cosmology models that agree with the available data.

Milkyway@home — Research in the gravitational potential of the Milkyway galaxy and studies of it's evolution.

Life Sciences

Folding@home — studies the phenomenon of protein folding, misfolding, aggregation, and related diseases. Such diseases include BSE (mad cow), Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, among others.

Predictor@home — uses homology modeling to compare proteins of known structure with similar, but lesser known, proteins, and then constructs predictions for those proteins.

FightAIDS@Home — identify candidate drugs that have the right shape and chemical characteristics to block HIV protease.

Rosetta@home — predict and design protein structures, and protein-protein and protein-ligand interactions, in order to develop methods that accurately predict and design protein structures and complexes, an endeavor that may ultimately help researchers develop cures for human diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and malaria.

Help Cure Muscular Dystrophy — a project investigating protein-protein interactions for 40,000 proteins whose structures are known, with particular focus on those proteins that play a role in neuromuscular diseases. The database of information produced will help researchers design molecules to inhibit or enhance binding of particular macromolecules, hopefully leading to better treatments for these diseases. There is currently no cure for people affected by these diseases.

Help Conquer Cancer — investigating the results of protein X-ray crystallography, which helps researchers not only annotate unknown parts of the human proteome, but importantly improves their understanding of cancer initiation, progression and treatment.

Drug Design Optimization Lab — research on drugs which can fight Anthrax, Smallpox, Ebola, SARS, deadly diseases for which there is currently no cure, and Malaria, a life-threatening disease for which 40% of the world's population is at risk

Earth Sciences

Climateprediction.net — tries to predict Earth's climate 50 years from now. The project uses a large-scale Monte Carlo simulation to predict what the climate will do in the future.

Cryptography

HashClash@home — searches for MD5 hash collisions to find the nature of vulnerabilities present in applications using MD5. The MD5 encryption algorithm was first broken in August, 2004, by a Chinese research team.

Free Rainbow Tables —  a project generating Rainbow Tables to use for breaking hashes. Results from the project are compiled into complete tables, which are then submitted to freerainbowtables.com where they are available for free to anyone. This project has found till now 14483 cracked hashes.

SHA-1 Collision Search Graz —  a project attempting to find collisions for the SHA-1 encryption algorithm, a popular algorithm which is used in many software applications such as email and secure web browsing.

Checkout, Distributed Computing for an extensive list of active projects (and also upcoming) on physics, biology, mathematics, finance, art etc. There are all sorts of research work going on. Take part in the one that you find interesting or consider important for science.

Additional information on Wikipedia

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