You Can Make a Difference Effortlessly or By Playing a Game

I was listening to the Naked Scientists Podcast yesterday and Joe Jasinski talked about the World Community Grid. Basically, people all over the world donate their computer's downtime to help science. Here is Joe explaining how it works:
The World Community Grid is a group of researchers and a group of ordinary citizens who have combined their efforts to build what is in fact in some sense, one of the world’s largest supercomputers to solve problems that we believe are beneficial to mankind. Anybody can join. It’s using your own PC or computers to join a network of computers [around the world] and those computers are used by the scientists who are doing projects with the World Community Grid to do computations that would otherwise be impossible for them to do because they don't have enough computing power.

So the way it works is you go to and you can sign up your machine or machines and we download a screensaver to your machine, and when you're not using your computer, which is most of the time actually even if you have it on and you're sitting in front of it, we can do some computations. Then we send the results back to a centralised computer which we call the head node.

After we’ve done enough of these computations, we present the data to the principal investigators, the scientists who are exploring things on the World Community Grid, and they can then understand their problem and hopefully discover something new like a new drug to treat HIV/AIDS or for dengue fever, or maybe finding new kinds of plastic materials that would make cheap solar cells available.

So you, little ol' you, can make a difference almost effortlessly. This is a great way to be a Citizen Scientist. By the way, WCG is non-profit.

I signed up and downloaded the screensaver. I changed my preferences so that WCG gets 10 GB of hard drive space, and can have 20% of RAM when I'm using the computer, then 75% when I'm away from the computer (I didn't want it running at 100% because I don't want my computer to stay too hot).

I read that it uses about the same electricity as turning on a light, so the cost to me is negligible. But as I write, my computer is working on solutions to AIDs and cancer, and I'm also computing for the LHC (see below) and folding proteins. Yesterday, it worked on solutions for clean water, clean energy and a drug search for some nasty parasite called Leishmaniasis.

You get to pick which projects you want to contribute to. You can choose to work on all of them, which is what I did. Here is the active list right now:

  • Drug search for Leishmaniasis, a parasitic tropical disease which infects over 2 million people in 97 countries

  • Computing for Clean Water

  • The Clean Energy Project Phase 2 - solar cells and energy storage device calculations

  • Discovering Dengue Drugs Phase 2 - Dengue is a viral disease

  • Help Cure Muscular Dystrophy Phase 2

  • Help Fight Childhood Cancer - finding drugs that disable 3 particular proteins associated with neuroblastoma

  • Help Conquer Cancer - improve the results of x-ray crystallography in order to increase understanding of cancer and its treatment

  • Human Proteome Folding Phase 2

  • Fight AIDs at Home - using computation methods to identify candidate drugs to block HIV protease (structure-based drug design)

Here are the 9 projects that have been completed.

You can also join a Team! I recommend Rational Atheists United for Science, which is what I have joined. If you form a team, let us know so we can join it.

They are on Facebook at World Community Grid. They are also the founders of a group called People for a Smarter Planet. This page has several groups that you can participate in, such as CityOne (a game you can play to help science), Creek Watch (a nifty smart phone app), World Community Grid and the Goldstine Fellowship.

Suppose you want to do even more for science? How about Foldit! You can play a game that could make a huge difference. In fact, it has already! Foldit is a protein folding game that you can download and play on your computer. Here is the science behind the game.

Here is where it gets supremely cool. A protein causing AIDs in rhesus monkeys that hadn't been solved for 15 years was resolved by Foldit players and confirmed by x-ray crytallography! Here is the paper.

Don't have time to play a game? Rosetta uses distributed computers (like WCG) to compute protein folding. You install a screensaver and it does computations when you are idle.

Both WCG and Rosetta run the same program, BOINC. SETI@home,, LHC@Home (you can help the Large Hadron Collider!) and others also use this system so you can connect to whatever projects you like (this link has a big list!).

Once you have BOINC installed, go to Tools > Attach to project or account manager > then select which projects you like. Super easy to do!

If you join and get started, let us know! And if you join a team or form one on any of  the projects let us know that too.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I think I said above that it uses about as much as having an incandescent light on. I don't mind using a bit of electricity to help the LHC or for trying to find a cure for cancer. :)