“She blinded me… with Science!” — T. Dolby
One of the unsung results of the rise of the home computer (thank-you, Woz and Steve!) and the internet that connects us all together is the capability for us to participate in science.
Not the kind of ‘science’ that counts begats and announces the age of the Universe as dogma, nor the kind that deduces that vaccinations cause mental retardation because someone on a street corner told us so. I’m talking tried and true, real science that works to better our understanding of the world around us.
Take SETI@home for instance. SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life) was a NASA project that began in 1971, They used radio telescopes to scan the heavens for radio signals that didn’t come from earth. While it’s true that in space, no one can hear you scream, the universe is a noisy place in the radio part of the spectrum. Sweeps of the sky were recorded, and computers were programmed to filter out white noise and star songs from ET calling home.
By 1999, priorities changed, funding changed, and SETI lost computing capabilities. They still had recorded sky surveys to process, so they came up with a rather novel idea… they would use home computers to help process their data. Yes, home PC’s were no longer rare and their use was booming. SETI would design a screen saver that would show the results of the calculations being performed, and the calculations would only run when the screen saver came on, so no user activity would be impacted.
SETI@home was released in 1999 and has been running ever since. They announced two goals, one of expanding scientific observation to detect extra-terrestrial life, and one showing that the citizen science concept can work.
Then there’s BOINC (The Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) which started out by taking over the client software for SETI@home.
Like many of our modern advances, BOINC is the result of partnerships between government and the private sector. Besides SETI@home, BOINC now provides access to a growing number of science projects for us to participate in, all while you are resting from your computer.
ET not your bag? You can try climatepredicition.net, an Oxford based project that creates computer models of the earths climate and then monitors how changing variables, like carbon dioxide or loss of ice, would play out over time.
Einstein@home takes observations from orbiting satellites and crunches the numbers to try and detect gravity waves predicted by Einstein.
There’s FightMalaria@home and MalariaControl.net that measure different aspects of a disease that affects tens of millions.
If your PC is tricked out for gaming, try Rosetta@home, which helps determine the optimal 3D structure of proteins. Knowing the shape of specific proteins yields great rewards, both in understanding physiology and in the design of new drugs to fight a spectrum of diseases.
If you are a social cyber butterfly, you can even join teams (I’m a proud member of Paddy’s in Space) and engage in competitions.
Who’d a thought that we could individually contribute to the knowledge base and help make the world a better place while our PC’s and laptops were on hold?