Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Speaking of Science...

I found an absolutely wonderful series of shows on BBC Radio called Citizen Science. There are three episodes dealing with the important roles amateurs can fill in advancing science. Conservation, distributed computing, and astronomy and the subjects addressed.

The episode on distributed computing was the most interesting to me. I've been involved in it for a couple of years. My computer is constantly folding proteins for Fold@Home:

Folding@home is a distributed computing project -- people from throughout the world download and run software to band together to make one of the largest supercomputers in the world. Every computer takes the project closer to our goals. Folding@home uses novel computational methods coupled to distributed computing, to simulate problems millions of times more challenging than previously achieved

How does this help?

Proteins are biology's workhorses -- its "nanomachines." Before proteins can carry out these important functions, they assemble themselves, or "fold." The process of protein folding, while critical and fundamental to virtually all of biology, in many ways remains a mystery.

Moreover, when proteins do not fold correctly (i.e. "misfold"), there can be serious consequences, including many well known diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Mad Cow (BSE), CJD, ALS, Huntington's, Parkinson's disease, and many Cancers and cancer-related syndromes.

By running a piece of software I'm making a small contribution that helps scientists better understand protein folding and eventually, how misfolds lead to disease. I'm making a tiny contribution in the work towards cures.

One other distributed computing event I was unaware of was Stardust@Home.

On January 15, 2006, the Stardust spacecraft's sample return capsule parachuted gently onto the Utah desert. Nestled within the capsule were precious particles collected during Stardust's dramatic encounter with comet Wild 2 in January of 2004 and something else, even rarer and no less precious: tiny particles of interstellar dust that originate in distant stars, light-years away. They are the first such pristine particles ever collected in space, and scientists are eagerly waiting for their chance to "get their hands" on them.

Where does distributed computing come in? Not in the conventional sense as with Fold@Home but rather by using the actual people on the computers to sift through scan after scan of aerogel, the stuff that may contain the stardust.

By asking for help from talented volunteers like you from all over the world, we can do this project in months instead of years. Of course, we can't invite hundreds of people to our lab to do this search-we only have two microscopes! To find the elusive particles we are using an automated scanning microscope to automatically collect images of the entire Stardust interstellar collector at the Curatorial Facility at Johnson Space Center in Houston. We call these stacks of images focus movies. All in all there will be nearly a million such focus movies. These are available to Stardust@home users like you around the world. You can then view them with the aid of a special Virtual Microscope (VM) that works in your web browser.

I studied, took a test and started scanning a couple of days ago. I'm hooked. I've gone through almost a 1000 movies. It's pretty easy to lose yourself in the process for an hour and the moment when you hit on something you feel might be an honest to goodness track of a bit of stardust is a nice way to start a day.

Fold@Home and Stardust@Home are both great ways to get involved with science as an actual participant.


Lorraine M. said...

Don't forget SETI@home

We've done that one here for years.

Lorraine M. said...

You got me interested in seeing what else was out there. I didn't know it had a name (distributed computing).

Check out the wiki list:

distributed computing projects