Monday, March 9, 2009

The Origami of Life

I just wanted to share my experience with this participatory science project.
Folding@Home is a protein folding research project that is part of Stanford University. While understanding how proteins fold up into their three dimensional shapes is very important, it is also very difficult. The process in the cell takes place in microseconds as the proteins are synthesized from the instructions in messenger RNA (copied from the DNA in the nucleus). Therefore the method of choice today is to simulate the motions of the atoms using computers.
Obviously, this takes a lot of computer power. More than even the largest supercomputer, in fact. So the only alternative is to reach out to thousands of PCs and borrow their spare CPU time. Modern computers are idle most of the time. Even when browsing the web and listening to music through your computer, its processor is just idling away. Distributed computing, also called grid computing, is a way to use those spare cycles to do some good.
Folding@Home is the largest distributed computing project in the world today. Anyone with a PC, laptop, or Sony PS3 and an internet connection can join. The joint efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers create a computing engine that is currently five times faster than the biggest supercomputer!
I recently joined, and it is very satisfying to know that for the cost of the electricity to leave my PC on, I am contributing in a significant way to curing Alzheimer's Disease, Mad Cow Disease, Huntington's Disease, studying cancer, and advancing basic science.
To join, I went to the F@H web page to download and install the right F@H client for my machine and operating system. Now F@H just sits in the background while I use the PC normally. Because F@H only uses the spare cycles on the machine, it never interferes with other uses. I can also pause F@H whenever I want.
As you might expect of a grid computing project, the security of the software is a top priority. The software has been downloaded over 800,000 times, and no one has ever gotten a computer virus from joining F@H.
Anyone reading this message probably has all that it takes to participate in F@H. Please try it. It's fun and rewarding to see the molecules your PC is working on, and to earn points for completing work. But the real reward is knowing that you are helping to make life better, one spare cycle at a time.

ps - SETI@Home is a similar project aimed at detecting signals in radio waves collected from the Arecibo radio telescope.
pps - This is not meant to be an internet chain letter, but obviously a volunteer grid computing project grows mostly by word of mouth. If you try F@H and like it, you have my permission to forward this message to your friends, or use parts of it to convince the powers that be at local school districts and college campuses that F@H is safe, fun, and something that can make kids excited about science. PCs in classrooms are exactly the kind of underutilized resource that would greatly benefit Folding@Home.

No comments: