14 Best Ways to Use Your Computer’s Spare Time

Between YouTube videos, your processor can search for a cure for AIDS.

By Lizzie Buchen
Feb 6, 2008 12:00 AMMay 21, 2019 4:33 PM


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Supercomputers are expensive, so investigators with lots of data and little budgets have turned to distributed computing: relying on free help from volunteers who download programs onto their home computers and run the software to analyze small chunks of data. The results are then sent back to researchers to crunch further. Just what has come from a decade of such homegrown efforts? We look at 14 programs to see if they’re worth your processor’s time.

Stardust@Home What it is: In 2006 the NASA spacecraft Stardust brought back cometary and interstellar dust. This program continues the scrutiny of minute aspects of the universe from Earth.

How it works: Lets users examine Stardust’s collectors in search of bits of cosmic dust. The Web site says it’s like “searching for 45 ants on a football field.”

Our take: It’s on to phase II for this innovative success. 

SETI@Home What it is: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence scans the sky for signs of life. David Anderson, SETI’s cocreator, says beyond finding E.T., he hopes to promote interest in science.

How it works: SETI sifts data gathered by radio telescopes for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space—the kind we’d expect from intelligent life.

Our take: Eight years and no contact, but there are 720,000 participants. Use it if you believe.

Folding@Home What it is: This program looks at ways proteins go awry by running? simulations of how the molecules are supposed to fold. Researchers hope to shed light on diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

How it works: Folding@Home simulates protein folding and its consequences. This group has the most published papers of any distributed-computing project.

Our take: Join the Fold.

Cosmology@Home What it is: Cosmology@Home is run by the Department of Astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The goal: sifting through theories of the universe.

How it works: The program matches theoretical projections to real data and creates model universes. Preliminary results are already leading to papers.

Our take: The number of users—2,900—may be scant, but it is off to a strong beginning.

FightAIDS@Home What it is: Run by the Olson Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute, this is the first biomedical and the first humanitarian distributed-computing project.

How it works: Uses computational methods to help identify which drug molecules could best fight HIV.

Our take: It’s a good cause in need of volunteers.

Climateprediction.net What it is: Roughly $2 billion is spent each year on modeling the impact of global warming. This project attempts to vet the varying predictions.

How it works: The program sifts through thousands of climate models provided by researchers, tossing out the nonsense models as it crunches.

Our take: More than 45 teraflops of data is no joke. Finally, software worthy of your computer’s footprint.

Einstein@home What it is: So far none of the gravitational waves that Albert Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity have been detected. But if spinning neutron stars are creating ripples in space-time, the thousands of home computers chugging away at the data from the U.S. Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory may have the best chance to find them.

How it works: Each computer receives a signal from a massive spinning neutron star to analyze. By searching for deviations in the signal, the computer can flag it for closer analysis.

Our take: Even Einstein had his doubts.

HelpDefeat Cancer Project  What it is: One of several research initiatives supported by World Community Grid, a public computing grid dedicated to humanitarian causes. By the time Help Defeat Cancer had completed its project a few months ago, more than 2,909 years of work had been completed in eight months.

How it works: The program analyzes and classifies archived tissue samples to improve cancer treatment techniques and diagnostic tools.

Our take::If your computer could help find the cure, isn’t it worth a bit of your processor’s time?

GIMPS  What it is: Insomniacs who count prime numbers to fall asleep are in for a treat. The mathematicians behind the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (GIMPS) recently broke their own record to find the largest known Mersenne prime number, a whopping 9,808,359 digits long.

How it works: Volunteers sort through numbers to look for the immense prime numbers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation will award $100,000 to the first person to find a 10-million-digit prime number.

Our take: Counting for $100,000? Let your computer do the work.

BURP What it is: The Big and Ugly Rendering Project (BURP) is still in its infancy, but it's already attracted a close-knit group of 3D animation enthusiasts. According to BURP creator Janus Kristensen, "no lengthy analysis or scientific know-how is necessary to understand the images and movie clips that are produced. They speak their own universal language."

How it works: The project produces 3D animations on its network of more than 1,000 machines, giving artists access to free rendering power as needed.

Our take: It might not be for the greater good, but here is computing dedicated to greater entertainment.

Electric Sheep What it is: If Darwin returned as an artist with a knack for computer science, he might be Scott “Spot” Draves, creator of Electric Sheep, a collective of computers that renders artwork. Animations, or “sheep,” evolve into high-definition abstract paintings, spawning off in random mutations. But it’s more science than you’d expect. “I want people to see the power of evolution,” Draves says. “I'd like people to accept evolution and randomness as the ultimate creative force in our universe.”

How it works: The program creates sheep whose color, shape, and motion are specified by a "genetic code." If a user sees a sheep he likes, she may vote for it. Sheep that receive more votes live longer and are more likely to reproduce.

Our take: Must scientists get all the distributed-computing love? Perhaps not.

LHC@home What it is: When the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) switches on this year, it will be the most powerful particle accelerator ever built—protons will zip around its 27-kilomter-long tunnel and smash into one another with an energy of 14 teraelectron volts (that is, rather a lot).

How it works: A program called SixTrack simulates high-energy particles traveling around the LHC to study the long-term stability of their orbits. Users can organize into teams and compete for top ranking.

Our take: You may not be able to find all your old Word documents, but you might be able to help find the Higgs.

Malariacontrol.net What it is: A part of Africa@Home, malariacontrol.net works with population models to determine the best strategy to control malaria—from researching vaccines to deploying mosquito nets.

How it works: To measure the way malaria is transmitted, the computers simulate large human populations, varying biological and social parameters that influence the distribution of the disease.

Our take: Malaria affects nearly 500 million people a year, nearly 1,000 times the number of people who contract HIV worldwide.

Spinhenge@home What it is: The group researches nanomagnetic molecules, which may eventually be targeted for local tumor chemotherapy and the development of tiny memory modules.

How it works: This program uses your computer to calculate statistics of the spin dynamics of new molecular structures.

Our take: Now that you (finally) know that nanomagnetics exist, why not devote some computer hours to this worthy, niche field?

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