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Distributed -- and Interactive

curve.jpgWe pay attention to the growth of distributed computing efforts for a few reasons: they're quite often projects with distinctly worldchanging aspects, whether trying to figure out protein folding, climate prediction, or controlling a smart electricity grid; they can be projects which promote new forms of social and economic organization, such as the "urban grid" idea; and distributed computing is a useful model for other forms of collaborative endeavors. The one downside to distributed computing projects is that they generally are passive affairs, churning away on your computer when you're not paying attention. But a new project, using distributed computing to find extra-solar planets, might just change the way people use distributed computing.

PlanetQuest is a non-profit group trying to find planets outside of our solar system using ongoing observations from up to 10 dedicated telescopes in the northern and southern hemispheres. Using the open source BOINC code as its base, their software -- called the "PlanetQuest Collaboratory" -- will sift through astronomical data looking for the light curve signatures of stars with planets, as well as other types of unusual astronomical phenomena. Unlike SETI@Home, PlanetQuest also offers participants an excellent chance of success: David Gutelius, the executive director of the project, claims that "...somewhere between one in 3,000 and one in 5,000 people will find a planet." And if your machine finds a planet, you get to name it (this is a serious responsibility; we don't want future exploration robots landing on the planet "Howard Stern," do we?).

The software (which is still in alpha testing, and is not yet available for download) will include various tools for visualizing and studying the astronomical data your computer is chewing on, from a navigable map of the stellar region to a module allowing users to run planetary formation hypotheses against the data coming in. Tools for talking with and assisting other PQ contributors will also be built-in. The Collaboratory software will roll together a distributed computing client, an educational toy and social networking -- a potentially powerful combination.

This strikes me as a model other distributed computing projects should emulate. Knowing that your computer, when otherwise idle, is actually grinding away on data which could lead to new scientific advances is certainly edifying, but not particularly exciting. And while the rippling graphs when SETI@Home is in "screen saver" mode are undoubtedly telling the viewer something, they don't give the user much from which to learn. Participants in distributed computing projects should have greater access to the information their computers are helping to build, and more ways to learn from (and contribute to) the project.

One can even imagine a more interactive distributed computing project being an entry point for open access/open source science. New contributors bring little more than computing power and curiosity; as they learn more about the project, they have opportunities to ask questions; eventually, they can make useful suggestions as to the course of the research; in time, with enough experience and knowledge, they could even contribute new projects for the program to study. Being able to contribute to a scientific project by donating computer time is certainly useful; being able to contribute by donating knowledge as well is even better.

Comments (2)

You realize the Trekkies are going to... well.... there are a lot of them. They have a lot of compute. They had their last series cancelled...

"we are *not* calling it spock. I don't care who found it"

"hey, man, a deal's a deal. I ported code to this old Cray YMP just for this chance...."

My idle CPU cycles are currently going to ClimatePrediction.net, but when PlanetQuest gets out of the alpha phase I just might have to give it some cycles and see what happens.

A planet called Worldchanging.com would be good publicity :D


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