Distributed Computing

Put your computers spare time to a good use

Many scientific endeavors require enormous computing power. Organizations can purchase supercomputers

or distribute the task among many computers. This gave rise to the field of Distributed Computing.

So what does this have to do with our computer? To distribute a task among many computers, a computer network is required. The Internet is the largest network on the planet so it was logical to make use of it to distribute scientific tasks among millions of computers.

The first endeavor to use the Internet was SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. This was originally a NASA project but cancelled by Congress in 1994. In 1999 SETI@home was launch by the University of California, Berkeley as an exercise in Distributed Computing. SETI@home quickly became one of the fastest computers in the world with an average of 300,000 computers participating and offering the equivalent of a 617 Tera FLOPS or 617x1012 floating point instructions per second, making SETI@home more powerful than the fourth fastest supercomputer!

In 2002 the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing or BOINC was introduced as a standard platform for Internet Distributed Computing based on the success of SETI@home. By breaking a complex task into small steps and distributing the data to many computers on the Internet, BOINC can turn many thousands of Internet users into a powerful supercomputer.

Today BOINC supports numerous scientific projects in medicine, physics, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and genetics. A full list of projects is located here.

How Distributed Computing Works

Your computer is for your use. BOINC replaces the screensaver in Windows. The screensaver only becomes active when your computer is doing nothing. So when you are not using your computer it is now doing valuable scientific research for the betterment of mankind. When you want to use your computer BOINC stops and you have full use. A win-win situation.

Every BOINC project requires a data fragment, a program and memory (RAM), but as a screensaver it only starts when your computer is idle. It runs at the lowest priority level.

To participate in any project, go to BOINC and select a project by clicking on Choose project.



Where we scroll down to the Astronomy/Physics/Chemistry projects. Notice that when we mouse over a project we get a brief description of that project. We select EINSTEIN@home and click on it.

BOINC Projects


If this is your first project you will need to restart your computer after BOINC is installed.



Download and install the BOINC Manager and project software.

If you're not familiar with downloading programs, see our help topic on Downloads.



After your computer restarts, you will be presented with the Attach to a project menu. Click Next.

Add a Prokect


And select your project. Here we select EINSTEIN@home and click the Next> button.

BOINC Projects


Where you will create an account. BOINC needs to know who you are as you will be automatically sent packets of scientific data relative to your project.

Create  an account


Where you will be Attached to a project. Click Finish.

BOINC Manager


The BOINC Manager will now show the project to which you are attached. It shows that there is about 12 hours remaining to process our first data packet. If you leave your computer on all night, you can probably finish this packet in a day or two. When completed the BOINC manager sends the results back and obtains another piece of data.

You can also join multiple projects and split your time between the projects.

BOINC Manager


Non-BOINC Projects

Although most Distributed Computing projects use BOINC, some do not. Folding@home is one that does not. It is a project at Stanford University to analyze protein folding which has been linked to diseases, such as Alzheimer's, ALS, Huntington's, Parkinson's, and many Cancers. To download Folding@home go here.

Another is the World Community Grid. The World Community Grid is an organization for non-profits in need who can use the grid and share their research. Research projects currently using the grid include better treatments for cancer and HIV. To participate in the World Community Grid go here.


Distributed Computing Screensavers







With any Distributed Computing Project, you will get some great fully animated screensavers. For EINSTEIN@home it's a celestial sphere showing where the LIGO gravitational wave detectors are pointed. Most impressive on a large high resolution display.






For SETI@home you get a Fourier Analysis as your signal snippet progresses.



If you think this is the type of project you would like to participate in, download BOINC and give it a try. If you don't like it, simply uninstall the program.


EINSTEIN@home - What you are actually doing


spacetime.jpg 211x155

Albert Einstein published his ground breaking General Theory of Relativity in 1916. This pivotal work re-defined how we consider gravity.

Isaac Newton defined gravity as an invisible force that acted on objects at a distance. Einstein defined it as a warping in the fabric of spacetime as shown to the right. Gravity travels at a fixed speed of 299,792,458 meters/second, exactly the same as light and radio. If, for example, our sun were to explode the Earth would continue in its orbit for 499 seconds (8.32 minutes)- the time it would take for gravity to reach us. Without the sun's gravity, the earth would then fly off into space.

So, gravity is not an instantaneous force as Newton had theorized. It takes time for its effect to be felt. It is a wave in the fabric of spacetime and takes time to propagate.

A massive gravity event, like the collision between a black hole and a neutron star anywhere in the universe would be "felt" here on Earth as the gravity waves of such an event pass through the planet. A violent event such as this would also produce massive radio emissions in the form of a gamma ray burst or GRB.

Ligo Livingston

The National Science Foundation built two observatories to detect gravitational waves. These observatories do not employ optical telescopes or radio antenna as we normally associate with an astronomical observatory. Instead, LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory) use exquisitely sensitive Michelson interferometers with arms of about six miles in length. One was built in Hanford, Oregon and another in Livingston, Louisiana (pictured at left).

Gravitational waves cause very small disturbances in the arm length. Other factors such as seismic events anywhere on the planet, crashes or explosions cause a greater disturbance. Some critics have described LIGO as nothing more than an expensive noise detectors since most of what is detected has nothing to do with gravity.

The key for LIGO to detect a gravitational event is to synchronize the LIGO event to a light or radio event that can be observed with an optical or radio telescopes.


Black holes don't produce much light so optical telescopes are out but they are a strong source of radio emissions in the form of a Gamma-Ray Burst.

Any strong gravitational wave event would produce a GRB that could also be detected by Radio Telescopes.

The Arecibo Radio Observatory (shown at right) is a one mile diameter dish in Puerto Rico, the largest single dish Radio Telescope.

So what you are doing in EINSTEIN@home is comparing gravitational data from LIGO with radio data from Arecibo, looking for a GRB that correspond in time. This is possible because gravitational waves travel at the same speed as radio waves. Any event that detected by both observatories at the same time is a gravity wave.

This is an exciting time. You can participate in leading edge scientific discovery like never before.


LIGO Livingston beam splitter (left), vacuum pumps (center) and South arm (right).

LIGO Beam Splitter LIGO vacuum pumps LIGO South Arm


Your computer could make the next scientific discovery like this!!