Thursday, October 24, 2002

A Million Days of Folding: I used to participate in a distributed computing project called Folding@Home, which was an effort to create a mathematical model of protein folding. Proteins do all the heavy lifting in molecular biology and they go through a process called folding, which we don't really understand in detail because modelling it requires an enormous amount of computational power. Folding@Home, a research outfit out of Stanford U., attacked this problem by taking these computations, breaking them into small pieces and distributing them to volunteers all over the world, who used their personal computers to complete their portion of the computation, return the results, then pick up another portion. These computations run as background processes on the volunteers' computers, using processor time when it would be otherwise idle (which for most of us is probably about 90% of the time), working like a screen saver. As a result, Folding@Home was able to complete a million days of processing in just a few months, according to MSNBC. This system just yielded their first success, a model of the folding of a protein called BBA5. I don't pretend to understand the science behind it, but I'm pretty sure this is a Good Thing. (I sure wish I could still participate in the project, but you really need a persistent internet connection and the only one I have access to is at work, where running distributed clients is forbidden.)