One of the things I like best about participating in distributed computing projects is learning about the science (or mathematics, etc.) behind them (and adding unique words like “thermohaline circulation” to my vocabulary). A good project should enable you to participate in it without having to understand its field of research. A great project should educate you about that field, and make you become interested in it, while you are participating in it. A distributed computing project (or a distributed human project) is a great way to get the general public involved in scientific and theoretical research:
- It gives people motivation to learn about a field of research. I personally may not know about theoretical gravitational waves, but knowing that by running a software application on my computer for Einstein@Home I have a chance to discover the first one, I am motivated to learn about them.
- It gives people a quick introduction to a field of research, with links to web pages or web sites with deeper knowledge about it if they want to learn more. I can learn just enough about climate research and modeling from an information page at climateprediction.net to understand what my computer is doing when it participates in the project. Or I can follow links from the site to more in-depth information about what the project is researching. Or I can ignore all of that, let the software run, and be content knowing that my computer is “doing good” for research.
- It gives people a way to contribute to real research, right now. I may not feel any connection with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by reading about it in a science magazine, but I definitely feel connected when my computer is studying a real block of data from a real radio telescope and a real scientist somewhere is waiting for my results. When a project has a descriptive user interface or display I can see exactly what kind of “thing” my computer is working on and whether it has found any interesting results about that thing. With the SETI@home interface I can see that my computer is working on data from a specific range of radio spectrum, from a specific date, and I can see the most interesting candidate signal in that block of data.
- It gives people a way to see exactly how their personal efforts are contributing to real research. If I donate money to a Muscular Dystrophy foundation, I don’t know if my money was used for petri dishes or marketing brochures and I don’t know if I’ve helped find a cure. But if I contribute computing time to World Community Grid‘s Help Cure Muscular Dystrophy project I can know that my computer has tested a certain number of potential drug molecules (756 in my case), any one of which could be a cure for the disease.
- It popularizes modern scientific and other research. I don’t know much about clean energy research, or particle physics, or rectilinear crossing numbers. More importantly I don’t know anyone in those fields to ask about them to find out whether I should learn about them. But when I have project websites to visit I can learn about them quickly, can see what they are researching, can learn whether they are having any luck, and can decide whether I should learn more about them. And if I choose to, I can help them in their research efforts.
Want to add some new words to your vocabulary? Try these projects:
- climateprediction.net can teach you about thermohaline circulation
- LCH@home can teach you about the Higgs boson particle
- Folding@home can teach you about protein folding