PC users come to aid of scientists

Amateurs combine their power to help pros on big projects


By day, Martin Courtney pounds out reports for a government contractor. But at night, in his South Baltimore rowhouse, his job title is far more exotic: cosmic dust hunter.

Courtney is one of thousands of recruits squinting at their computer screens each day in an unusual scientific treasure hunt: the quest to find microscopic motes of interstellar dust captured by NASA's Stardust spacecraft.

The project is a new twist on a growing scientific trend. As research budgets shrink and the hunger for number-crunching grows, more professional scientists are seeking help from interested amateurs and their Internet-connected computers.

The Stardust probe returned to Earth in January after seven years trolling the solar system for comet and interstellar dust. Scientists have extracted most of the comet debris from the probe. But an estimated 50 microscopic motes of interstellar dust remain hidden in its tennis racket-size particle collector.

"It's like trying to find 50 ants on a football field," says physicist Andrew Westphal. It would take years for the small NASA Stardust team to root them out, he says.

So Westphal and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley have begun a project called Stardust@home to help NASA. Open to anybody with a computer and keen eyes, the project offers armchair scientists the chance to scour Stardust's particle collector with an online virtual microscope.

"It's so tremendous," says Courtney, 30. "You're looking at something not a lot of people have seen."

The strategy behind Stardust@home is known as distributed computing or grid computing. It was popularized in the late 1990s by scientists involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

In that continuing effort, volunteers download free software that sifts radio telescope signals for signs of extraterrestrial chatter. The software grinds away unobtrusively in the background or kicks in when the computer is idle, then ships results back to the project's central computer.

SETI@home, as the project is known, has yet to find evidence of extraterrestrial life. But it has demonstrated that puny personal computers can collectively outperform supercomputers at a tiny fraction of the cost. More important, it shows that millions are willing to donate their PCs' idle time to science.

In the wake of SETI's success, more than two dozen distributed computing projects have come online. Today, for example, volunteers can help scientists forecast global climate change, hunt for elusive gravitational waves and discover new drugs to fight AIDS and other diseases.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say distributed computing has completely changed the scientific landscape. But it's on the verge of doing that," says David Anderson, a computer scientist at UC Berkeley and director of SETI@home.

"The groups that have more computer power, they're just able to do research other people can't. And that translates into publications."

Few know that better than Vijay Pande, professor of chemistry at Stanford University. Six years ago, Pande started a distributed computing project to study the behavior of proteins involved in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's.

About 200,000 volunteer computer users around the world crunch Pande's protein data. Leasing the equivalent amount of computing horsepower, he notes, would cost $1.75 billion a year at commercial rates. The flood of data generated by the volunteer computer users has resulted in 40 scientific papers.

"It allows us to do things that wouldn't be possible otherwise," he says.

Some experts caution that as distributed computing projects grow more common, thorny questions might arise about credit and intellectual property.

"One fundamental question with all these projects is who owns the results," says Berkeley's Anderson. "In some cases, you're crunching things that could produce drugs. That's the real bottom line."

For volunteers such as Greg Lawrence, a 66-year-old retired entrepreneur in Biloxi, Miss., that is the point. Like many volunteers, Lawrence got hooked on distributed computing through SETI.

Then he learned that his 4-year-old granddaughter, Maegan, had cancer. "That really spurred me," he says.

Lawrence has nine computers running around the clock on Rosetta@home, a University of Washington-based project that analyzes proteins tied to cancer and other diseases. He has persuaded many friends and family members to sign on.

"I don't expect what I'm doing will directly help my granddaughter," he says. "But I hope it will help others. So we're doing some good."

Though the interstellar dust captured by NASA's Stardust has no direct commercial value, scientists are eager to get their hands on it.

Generated in the fiery explosions of faraway stars, the particles could shed new light on their composition and internal machinery, says astronomer Donald Brownlee, principal investigator of the Stardust mission.

"How valuable are they? Well, I don't know. How valuable is a newborn baby?" he says.

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