How to be Part of a Supercomputer for Science

Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing We’re passing by Berkeley, the home of BOINC, but we don’t have time to stop and check it out. No real loss, eh? Probably nothing to see beyond some little office and a bank of servers. I mean, the real thing is that BOINC is a network that spans the world connecting ordinary computers and putting them at the service of science and the advance in human knowledge. It is the world’s virtual supercomputer, a genuine earhcircuit and it relies on people like you.  “Computer simulations cannot yet solve the folding code that is hidden in the primary structure [of proteins – their amino acid sequence] by simply calculating the molecular dynamics atom by atom, as to work through just 50 milliseconds of folding would take even the fastest computer around 30,000 years.“ “ To tease out the weakest signals, a great amount of computer power is necessary. It would take a monstrous supercomputer to get the job done. ” It turns out that there isn’t enough super-computer time available at the right price for some scientific projects to crunch the mass of data they have to deal with. I imagine all these mega-mainframes are mostly being used to model weather and predict (one way or another) climate change – that’s the well-known, well-funded issue of the moment. The first quote above relates to protein-structure and protein-folding analysis – an area of science that promises to be the next big thing; understanding the actual language of life now that we can sequence all the letters in our DNA. The second quote refers to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which, of course, investigates the possibility that we are not alone, what some people consider to be the biggest revolution in human thought. Both of these projects generate a massive amount of data that has to be crunched, which is why these open infrastructures of people’s humble desktops and laptops around the world [millions of them] have been developed. It works like this: a small piece of software, downloaded to and opened on your machine, accepts assignments over the internet – it gets a bit of work to do, some data to be crunched, in your computer’s spare time – it then sends the results back to the project headquarters. The software doesn’t interfere with any other of your programs – you can set its maximum CPU usage or the time of day to function – and you don’t have to be connected to the Internet continuously. If you want, you can get more into the BOINC community, the competitiveness of groups earning credits or understanding the scientific projects themselves (there are around forty projects on the BOINC platform alone). Alternatively, once you’ve set the software up you’ll hardly notice the important contribution you’re making to the global computer. Hey, possibly you’re at the start of a future Global Consciousness, surely a good place to be.

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