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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Maths, Monkeys, Species and Science.

Some time ago, I was thinking about little Change The World type things I could do, without too much energy or effort expenditure. I had heard about SETI@home and really liked the idea that my computer could be doing Important Things while I wasn't using it.

The only thing was, I wasn't especially interested in a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

I tried to find similar things, but as I didn't know the name for this whole genre of programme, I was entirely unsuccessful. All I knew was that you downloaded a screensaver which, when active, performed calculations on your computer, and then sent them back to a base, maybe a research centre, who could use them. The idea being that thousands of computer around the world doing the calculations would get loads more done than just the computers at an individual centre.

So, being intrigued by the idea, and with the lack of any others, I ended up downloading SETI@home.

It was quite intriguing, and at first I frequently left my computer inactive deliberately, so I could see it at work. I knew the funky graphics were almost certainly for my benefit, rather than integral to the work it was doing, but I appreciated them anyway.

Look, my computer's doing science!

But I still couldn't get past the feeling that if my computer was going to be doing Important Science Things, it should really be doing Important Science Things that I cared about. Or was at least interested in.

I spoke to my brother, who informed me that the phenomenon is called distributed computing, and that he was involved with a protein folding project. He said he'd send me a link to a site which had a fairly comprehensive list of different distributed computing projects, so I could choose one from there.

So, when he sent it me, I spent some time browsing the distributed computing active projects information, trying to decide which was the best use of my computer's lazy time. How on earth do you choose between fighting AIDS, and predicting climage change, or between the search for multifactorial primes and the Prime Sierpinski Project?

In the end, I decided to go with Lifemapper.
Participants "compute, map and provide knowledge of" where Earth's species of plants and animals live currently, where they could potentially live, and where and how they could spread across different regions of the world.

I had really liked the sound of the project, and got fairly involved with it, in terms of googling the various animal or plant species which my machine was calculating, and creating a record of names and pictures of each species on a webpage.

I was, thus, gutted when I was informed that the LifeMapper project was ending in January 2005. I had really enjoyed participating in the thing, and would miss learning about new animals!

So, back to the DC Active Projects list.

I eventually decided on find-a-drug. I thought that my screensaver trying to cure cancer, AIDS and malaria had to be a good thing. I downloaded it from the Find-A-Drug site, and it is currently calculating something totally incomprehensible to me, to do with cancer.

Find-A-Drug, like LifeMapper and SETI@home, humours me by doing graphics, described as
Each ball corresponds to an atom and each stick to a chemical bond between two atoms and these are coloured in accordance with the elements. The common colours are: blue for nitrogen, red for oxygen, yellow for sulphur and cyan for carbon.

It also only does the calculations when my computer is idle, and so doesn't slow the machine down when I'm using it.

And I have also set my home page to the Monkey Shakespeare Simulator, the theory behind it being the famous quotation,
"If you have enough monkeys banging randomly on typewriters, they will eventually type the works of William Shakespeare."


Jenny said...

Sounds interesting. We had the Seti@home on our computer at home for a while. Have a Happy New Year. :)