Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Massive Parallel Processing

Astronomy has always been a love of mine. I just enjoy being able to look up in the sky and understand what I see. Then in college I took several astronomy courses and really enjoyed them. I never had any inclination to be a professional astronomer. I’m not good enough at math to even consider it. However, I love to help out in the little ways that I can.
Several years ago I got involved with the SETI@home project. The gist of this project is that there are radio telescopes all over the world gathering terabytes of information everyday but they don’t have nearly enough computer resources to analyze the data. Somebody came up with the idea of massive parallel processing in order to solve this issue. The idea was that thousands of people leave their computers on constantly and the processor is busy drawing pretty lines and other things while the screen saver runs. Why not have the screen saver actual process data? So they started the program and thousands of people downloaded a packet of data to analyze and in return the got a cool screen saver that actual accomplished something more than just drawing pictures. SETI@home was used in the search for extra-solar planets and was very successful. I have no way of knowing if any of the data that went through my computer was directly involved but that’s not the point. I was actually assisting real astronomers with cutting edge research.
Thanks to a blog that I frequent daily I found out about another similar site. www.galaxyzoo.org is soliciting assistance to analyze the thousands of new galaxies that are being discovered with Hubble and ground based telescopes. The difference here is that they need human assistance and not just computer time. There are many programs that can assist in classifying galaxies but there with the current technology there is still no substitute for the human eye. Go to the site and they will give you a quick training course to see how well you can identify the different types of galaxies. After the training they give you a short quiz. If you test high enough on the quiz you are qualified to start evaluating slides of actual galaxies that have only recently been discovered. I got a 14/15 on the test and Victoria scored a 12/15 so we both are now being astronomy geeks during the time that we would normally blow on Sudoku or Solitaire. I found that it was quite addicting and had to force myself to stop before it got too late last night.
I think what appeals to me most about this is the spirit of cooperation that permeates the process. Rather than having one, all powerful, super computer doing this work we have thousands of real people investing their own time and energy. I think that in the long run this is how most, if not all, of the worlds problems will be solved. It’s the small steps taken by individual people that add up to make large differences in the world.
If you’re interested please give it a shot. And hats of to Phil Plaite, the Bad Astronomer, for bringing this to my attention.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this on another blog and immediately thought it would be something you would enjoy. I was going to email you when I saw Victoria's blog saying you'd already discovered it.