BOINC for Scientific Advancement

BOINC for Scientific Advancement

The following essay about the use and installation of the BOINC software on a computer, whether under Linux or Windows, or a variety of other operating system is discussed here.

As SETI - Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence - was the first application of distributed networking for a very large project, that is the focus of this article. The basic technology used to run SETI is used for a number of scientific and social applications.

Cynics for a Better Tomorrow has its team working through another application which works on smaller, shorter-term projects, called World Community Grid.



Background of SETI and BOINC

Way back when I had my first laptop, the smart folk at Berkeley University came up wih a novel idea, or more precisely, the practical application of an idea that had never been really applied, distributed computing, or using many computers working on an overwhelming problem in tiny pieces.

It was the Senior Bush years. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, had their funding cut off by the government. SETI's premise is that if there is (or was) an intelligent race in the great void, that, like us, it may have started showing its technological presence by manipulating electromagnetic radiation (in laymen's terminology, broadcasting radio waves). It was presumed that regardless of how the waves were transmitted, they would be in some sort of regular pattern, not the random static which occurs on all frequencies. Even if we couldn't decode the intelligence, we could see that it was a created signal, not a random one. Sort of like the hieroglyphics in Egypt: for a long time we knew they were writing, we just didn't know what they were saying.

The giant radio telescope in Arecibo, Puetro Rico, USA was marshalled for the task of SETI. It is known of course, that we have been announcing our own presence to the void for roughly seventy years via television, and a little longer via radio. So there is a potential receptive "bubble" if you will, of approximately 70 light years radius that could receive our signals. No doubt there are paranoid people out there who might be afraid we are announcing our presence to races that might not be as peaceful as ours. (Like we are so peaceful). On the other hand we could receive signals from many many light years away, though they would be "fossil signals," they would still indicate we are not (or at least were not) alone in the void.

Well, when SETI got cut off, these folk at Berkeley came up with a marvy idea: why not harness all the unused computing power of privately-owned computers, send them little blocks of some very extensive data, and have them do the service of mathematical computation which only was previously done on very expensive Government-owned supercomputers? By harnessing the power of home PCs through what is called "distributed computing," they made an aggregate many orders of magnitude over the most powerful supercomputer on the planet.

And thus the success of BOINC. No, SETI has not yet discovered a signal that appears to have been created intelligently. But they are still looking, thanks to donated computer time from little folk like me which gives them computing power NORAD could only dream of.

But SETI was successful in another way. By creating a simple (well simple for computer programmers, not for my pointy little Romance editor head) programme for taking monumental mathematical problems and making mincemeat out of them, they can send same data to several people to crunch (to eliminate error or tampering with the data) users at once, and they also applied the scheme to other vexing problems of science: folding proteins (that is, creating models of amino acids and proteins to simulate how they would work in the human body), which has generated several new drugs and therapies in the health industry; creating models of climate change (most of the data on climate change comes from BOINC, not governments); growing staple foods such as rice, wheat, and oats; the possibilities are endless.

When SETI started, modern computer technology was still getting off the ground: a computer like mine with 1.25 GBytes of RAM and 40 GBytes of storage capacity today was science fiction. Now it is quite a common, pedestrian laptop. They call this "thinking outside the box." And there are scads of scientific projects you can choose from to help crunch the math.

And you don't need to even know anything about SETI, agriculture, organic chemistry, math, or whatnot, BOINC simply runs in unused memory and computer clock cycles. Receives data blocks, crunches them, returns the data automatically, and comes with a bunch of neat screen savers to boot. But it does it in hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of computers around the world.

You can set SETI to only use so much disc space, so much memory, run only certain hours, &c. It can be infinitely manipulated to serve your computing needs. You only need to connect to the Internet to receive or send data.

So I am working with three projects: the original SETI (which I started with when there was no BOINC programme back in 2003, only SETI's original version of it), Rosetta (studying protein folding to create medicines and therapies), and World Community Grid (studying protein folding, diseases, climate change and agriculture).

Oh, and one more thing for those who might be vain enough to wonder "what happens if my computer makes the breakthrough discovery in Extra-terrestrial intelligence, or climate change?"

When the lucky scientists who find ET phoning home, or find the next miracle antibiotic, publish their paper, they will also include in the discovery the names of the persons who's data blocks cracked the shell of information. Potentially, a person could become quite famous doing nothing more than donating a few spare cycles of computer time. But not finding anything is just as important as finding something. And even with no computer or scientific or mathematical knowledge at all, the owner of a computer can make a contribution to the advancement of human knowledge and endeavour, which as is an admirable humanistic pursuit by itself.

The only drawback to the BOINC programme is it was written by computer geeks for scientists. If it were made simpler to use, or contained simpler help files, it would be much more appealing to average computer users: it costs nothing except the little bit of electricity to leave your computer running (you can turn off the monitor when you sleep; the monitor uses the most electricity in most computer systems anyway.)

All of BOINC's projects have message forums where you can discuss the project, get help with BOINC, &c. And BOINC really isn't that hard to use. Just gotta leave your PC on and BOINC pretty much does the rest. You can modify how it runs, or choose which projects you wish to allocate computer resources to. (If you don't believe there are Et's for example you don’t have to compute for SETI - you can compute climate change, growing better crops, cleaner energy, or curing disease if you prefer.)

If you have a hankering to do something good for mankind, this is one thing that is nearly painless, and costs nothing (except a few pennies for electricity). A detailed description of the BOINC project and the files to download are available at BOINC.

-James

"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking." - General George S. Patton, Jr.

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