‘Global volunteer computing’ leads to scientific discovery

Networked computers can act in concert to form a virtual supercomputer to perform very large tasks.
Networked computers can act in concert to form a virtual supercomputer to perform very large tasks.

Ordinary computers like those folks use to send eMail or surf the internet are being credited with finding a previously unknown neutron star, highlighting the changing nature of research in the era of grid computing.

Home office computers in Ames, Iowa, and Mainz, Germany, were cited Aug. 12 in the discovery of fast-rotating pulsar called PSR J2007+2722.

It was the first scientific discovery for the project, known as Einstein@Home, which uses spare computer power donated by 250,000 volunteers in 192 countries, according to Bruce Allen, director of the effort.

“This is a thrilling moment for Einstein@Home and our volunteers. It proves that public participation can discover new things in our universe,” said Allen, who is director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany and adjunct professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The finding of the new pulsar was reported in Science Express, the online version of the journal Science.

Data collected by the giant radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico are divided among the home computers of volunteers for analysis, and the results are fed back researchers based at Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Computing, the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover, Germany, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell and chair of Pulsar ALFA Consortium, said that while the pulsar discovery is yet to be explored, its potential has drawn intense interest from the science community.

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