forum discussion #19

Volunteer Computing Scores Celestial Success

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.
Download MP3

Listen to our story about the new pulsar discovery by Einstein@Home.

Learn how scientists are enlisting a global network of citizens – and their computers – to make discoveries in space. Join our conversation with physicists Bruce Allen (left, in photo) and Benjamin Knispel (right). They’re both at the Max Planck Institute of Gravitational Physics in Hannover, Germany, and they run the  Einstein@Home project. They are also our guests in this Science Forum discussion.

Continue Reading ...

The project is using the computers of some 250,000 volunteers from 192 countries to look for gravitational waves and new astronomical objects. Data from various detectors and telescopes are fed into the volunteers’ computers to be analyzed for signals from space.

In a study published in the journal Science this week, the scientists report Einstein@Home’s first discovery – a pulsar, some 17,000 light years from Earth. Pulsars are rotating neutron stars (leftover cores of dead giant stars). They spin rapidly and emit pulses of electromagnetic radiation. Those radio waves are picked up by radio telescopes like the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which was used in this study.

How it All Began: Nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves. He proposed that massive stars and black holes produce these waves as they move through space. But scientists are still trying to detect gravitational waves.

Einstein@Home began in 2005 when scientists realized that gravitational wave detectors in Italy, Germany and the U.S were generating more data than could possibly be analyzed by the computers available to researchers. So Bruce Allen decided to enlist the help of regular citizens. And in 2007, he extended the project to detect celestial bodies like pulsars.

Allen and Knispel are taking your questions until August 26. Come join the conversation. It’s just to the right.

  • Have you volunteered your time or your computer to help a research project? What motivated you to sign up?
  • Might “volunteer computing” break down barriers between scientists and the lay public? Is this a good thing?
  • Can you think of any other scientific projects that might benefit from a global network of personal computers?

Volunteer your computer.  Here are some popular citizen science projects you can sign up for:

Hide

The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.
 

Your Comments

  1. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

    Welcome to this discussion about Einstein@Home and other volunteer computing projects.

    Are you interested in learning more about Einstein@Home? Or about the new pulsar we’ve discovered? What do you think is the impact and potential of global volunteer computing? Do you participate in a distributed computing project? If so, how come? If not, why not?

    We are looking forward to any questions and discussion and to an interesting open dialogue over the next two weeks.

    • MikeTranch

      Heard about this on the podcast (love your podcast :~) and I just now installed BOINC software on my iMac and attached two projects, einstien@home and climateproediction@home. Thanks for spreading the word about this. I previously wanted to participate with seti@home, but it’s for Windows only. I was glad to find out that many BOINC projects will run on my iMac.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

        Hi Mike,

        Thanks for stopping by. I’m happy to hear that my pulsar story inspired you to volunteer your time and computer to two projects!

        I should add for the benefit of people who’re hearing about BOINC for the first time…its an open source software platform used by many distributed computing projects. It was developed by the University of California, at Berkeley’s David Anderson (see David’s comment down below).

        Rhitu

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

        Hi Mike,

        Since I want you to use your computer to run Einstein@Home, I probably shouldn’t tell you this… but seti@home IS available for Macs, and also for Linux machines.

        Just see:
        http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/client_types.php
        all those clients connections that have ‘apple’ as part of their name are from Macintosh (TM) computers.

        Cheers,
        Bruce

  2. Tell me more about Einstein@home. I am wondering if this will make my PC more susceptible to hackers, but I would like to help.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      Hi Glenn,

      you don’t have to worry. Using Einstein@Home will not make your computer more susceptible to hackers or viruses. The software used to distribute the tasks your computer receives makes sure that only the correct files are downloaded an executed. We have never seen any case in which any of our volunteers experienced difficulties with hacking / viruses. If you want to donate computation time on your machine, simply go to http://einstein.phys.uwm.edu/ and follow the instructions on the left under “Join Einstein@Home”. This shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes and then you will be crunching numbers in no time. You can modify the BOINC Manager to your needs (when should your computer run Einstein@Home, etc.)

      Cheers, Bruce & Ben

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      The Einstein@Home program (built with the BOINC infrastructure from Berkeley) is secure because it does not accept incoming network connections: it only makes outgoing connections. And the software used on our servers is digitally signed, so even if someone malicious hacked our server they could not replace the Einstein@Home software with their own.

      There are millions of people worldwide who have run BOINC-based projects like Einstein@Home. I don’t know of any cases where they have been hacked or compromised by BOINC or BOINC applications.

      Bruce

  3. Carrie

    Does the hypothetical presence of gravitational waves have anything to do with proving or supplementing aspects of string theory, specifically the existence of a “gravitron” as Brian Greene has called it – a gravity particle? A particle like an electron that acts like a wave?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      I don’t think that this has much to do with string theory, apart from the fact that string theory does provide a ‘natural’ explanation for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

      Bruce

  4. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Hi! Thanks for being in the forum.

    Earlier this week we heard news about another citizen science project, Rosetta@Home, that tries to decipher protein structure.
    http://www.latimes.com/news/science/la-sci-citizen-science-20100807,0,1084328.story
    That project evolved into an online game in which participants didn’t just passively donate computer time, but also lent their own insights into how the proteins might fit together. Do you think there would ever be a place for something like that in your research as well? Or is it just too specialized?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      Some of the traditional analysis methods used to find radio pulsars are very ‘brain intensive’. Typically a human being has to look at up to 50 plots per telescope beam. And since there are now more than 60,000 beams of data, this means looking at up to 3 million plots! So in future generations of Einstein@Home, we might ask volunteers to do some of this ‘visual processing’ for us.

      Bruce

  5. Charles Mann

    The problem that I have with most distributed computing projects is that a lot of people are using old machines that aren’t very efficient on a performance per watt basis. This means that a lot of power is wasted and thus, it’s not very green. Perhaps distributed computing clients can blacklist older machines and only function on the latest platforms?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      I’m not comfortable with the idea of blacklisting older machines from the project. In fact I personally wonder if the environmental impact of building new machines doesn’t offset much of the benefit of more computer performance per Watt. Building computer hardware is not very environmentally friendly because it involves a many rather toxic chemicals and chemical processes. Do you know if this question has been addressed somewhere?

      Bruce

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

        Hi, this is related to the wider concept of the ecological backpack (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Material_input_per_service_unit#The_concept_of_ecological_backpack), which measures “the life-cycle wide material inputs required to produce a product or service”. Some example numbers for a notebook computer can be found in this study: https://www.forumforthefuture.org/files/DigitaleuropeMobilecomputing.pdf (see chapter 6.1). You can see that most of the abiotic raw input materials are needed for production when compared to a three-year use.

        Ben

      • Charles Mann

        That’s an interesting point (a new machine’s footprint offsetting the inefficiency of older machines). That would be a great question to research in a white paper addressed to the larger distributed computing community.

        I used to do a lot of distributed computing projects until I realized how much power I was consuming by leaving the machine on 24/7. I wonder how many people realize how much a distributed computing project actually costs them?

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

        Hi Benjamin,

        Thanks, the study is an interesting reference! I didn’t know about it.

        Note that the Section you refer to (6.1) is about ‘handhelds’ not about ‘laptops/portables’ or ‘notebooks’.

        Box 5-10 shows the electrical power use of handhelds versus laptops, converted to units of TMR, which measures the environmental impact. You’ll notice that handhelds (annual TMR 8 to 13) use a lot less power than laptops (annual TMR 159 to 228).

        If you now look in Section 6.2 (notebooks) you’ll see that the manufacturing and delivery impact (TMR 437) is about comparable to the electrical power (TMR 476) from three years of use by a ‘work’ user. A ‘power’ user (presumably Einstein@Home volunteers fall into this category!) uses about 50% more power (TMR 683).

        So in the end, it seems fair to conclude that the environmental impact of manufacturing is about comparable to the impact from total power use.

        What’s the conclusion? I’m not sure yet. It would be interesting to see similar figures for desktops. Both Einstein@Home volunteers that found J2007+2722 were using desktops. In fact Helen Colvin specifically commented that she stopped running Einstein@Home on her laptop because it was getting too warm!

        Bruce

  6. Tamison

    Very exciting to hear more about citizen science especially after the journal Nature featured Foldit (the game spin off of Rosetta) in its latest issue. I’ve been a “Folder” for a year and a half now, and have become quite the addict to the completive aspects of not just out performing computers but my fellow folders. Foldit has been more than a puzzle solving pastime for me, it has reawakened a desire for scientific research. I’m looking forward to using Foldit and other citizen science programs as I start as a new secondary science teacher next month.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      To me, this is one of the best features of volunteer computing. It gives you, and others like you, a chance to really contribute something, and to make a difference. Thank you!

      Bruce

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

      Hi Tamison,

      The World’s science reporter here. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m curious about Foldit and how it works….unlike projects like Einstein@HOme which just relies on volunteers’ computers, Foldit requires your active participation, right?

  7. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    Bruce and Benjamin, many thanks for participating in this discussion.

    I’m curious to know a bit more about your astronomical work. What makes this pulsar so unusual? And now that you’ve found it, what kind of follow-up observations will you make?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      At the moment, there are ~1900 pulsars known. They come in different kinds, like animal species in a zoo. Our pulsar is from a very rare species (like a Kakapo, if you like). A dozen similar objects are known, less than 1% of all pulsars! J2007+2722′s species is called a “disrupted recycled pulsar”. That means this pulsar formed in a binary, formed first, the second star dumped matter onto it, spinning it up (recycling), and finally, the second supernova disrupted the system and left behind the pulsar alone. Regular observations will “time” the pulsar and exactly determine its frequency and frequency derivative, which will allows us to learn more about is history. Also, the peculiar wide pulse will be examined further with observations of the polarization of the pulsar’s radio waves. Ben

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      Hi David,

      I’m going to add something to what Ben wrote above. Look at the following diagram:

      http://relativity.livingreviews.org/Articles/lrr-2008-8/fig_3.html

      which shows known pulsars (as of 2008) plotted as a function of their period and derivative of the period. In the case of J2007+2722, the period is about 0.025 seconds and Pdot is not yet know, but known to be less than about 10^-18. You’ll notice that virtually all similar pulsars in the diagram are in binaries (indicated by being plotted as a point with a small circle around it). But our pulsar is isolated!

      Here is a nice discussion about isolated recycled pulsars from one of our collaborators on the Science paper:

      http://relativity.livingreviews.org/Articles/lrr-2008-8/articlesu8.html#x13-120002.8

      Bruce

  8. Congratulations on your discovery, as a budding radio astronomer I find this really exciting. This summer I have had the opportunity to work as an REU Intern with the SETI Institute at the Allen Telescope Array. The SETI Institute has developed a new collaborative environment called SETIQuest (http://setiquest.org/) that seeks to go beyond computing by also tapping the creative talents of the public. People with backgrounds in signal processing or computing can download datasets and look for signals or help develop algorithms that can more efficiently look for signals. Do you think this type of research model has promise in future of science as the problems of scientists are distributed to a much larger audience of professional who can help out with their work by donating their time?

    • David Anderson

      In the BOINC world, many volunteers do more than compute. They port, optimize, and GPU-enable applications, and even fix algorithmic errors. They do software testing, customer support, and text translation.

      There’s no question that the public – many of them science-educated people working in non-science jobs – are a tremendous latent resource for science research. We need to figure out how to use them effectively, and to persuade scientists (who tend to have a rather insular world view) that this is worth doing.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      Dear Thomas,

      Thank you very much!

      Indeed, as David Anderson says, the Einstein@Home project has had a number of important intellectual contribution from our volunteers. Some of them are computer programming and algorithm experts who have helped us to significantly speed up our analysis codes. Others have pointed out faults in our systems (and in some cases, also provided the solutions!). So while the “average” volunteer simply contributes by running the program on their computer, some people do much much more.

      Bruce

  9. Very good job ! I love this project and i contribute all days. I’m french and very young but i love BOINC and Einstein@Home.
    Congratulations !

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      Cher Pierre,

      Thank you very much for participating in Einstein@Home! Many years ago, as a young postdoc, I spent a wonderful year working in France (at the Observatoire de Paris – Meudon, CNRS). So it’s a special place for me too.

      Bruce

  10. Richard Mitnick

    I “crunch” on five computers, 24/7/365. Einstein is one of my projects. I crunch on about ten different projects.

    This is the best “press” we have had in quite a while. We need good press to get new people and machines.

    I have been a cruncher since the Cancer project on UD at Oxford University.

    This is the most satisfying thing I have ever done with my computers.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

      Dear Richard,

      Thank you for this!! Delighted to have you on board.

      Bruce

      • Richard Mitnick

        Hey Bruce-

        Thanks. Here’s my deal: I am so anxious for this stuff my wife thinks I am certifiable. I am active in the BOINC and WCG forums. But I am not technically adept. So, pushing for better PR is my chosen responsibility. I go after journalists who write up projects without even mentioning BOINC or WCG. I promote in our local computer shop. I wear BOINC and WCG T shirts.

        We need great press. One billion or more computers in the world and what do we have? 296,000 active crunchers on 522,000 hosts.

        This site is fine; but I suspect it is preaching to the choir.

        The question is, how do we get into the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc., we can’t even get a decent article in PC World’s print edition.

        You guys are carrying a great and heavy ball.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

        That’s a very good question! How do we get more people to sign up for Einstein@Home and similar projects?

        One solution would be if the standard operating systems like MS Windows or Mac OS X were delivered so that a standard default installation used the spare CPU cycles for BOINC projects.

        Another smaller-scale but more practical solution is to contact your local newspapers and TV and radio stations and ask them to do a story about Einstein@Home’s discovery, or about BOINC projects. Some Einstein@Home volunteers have had good success with this. For example see this message board:
        http://einstein.phys.uwm.edu/forum_thread.php?id=8306&nowrap=true#105585 to see how one enthusiastic Einstein@Home volunteer got a number of local papers to run a piece about Einstein@Home.

        Bruce

  11. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Einstein@Home

    Dear Forum Participants,

    We’ve enjoyed hearing your opinions and questions, and being able to respond to them ourselves. Einstein@Home only operates thanks to the participation of the public. The more people contribute, the more we can discover, and the greater the opportunity to advance our knowledge about the universe. We thank our many volunteers and contributors and look forward to further discoveries!

    Sincerely,
    Bruce Allen
    Benjamin Knispel

Add your comments

 characters available