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Volunteer Computing Pays Off


This week's report of an unusual pulsar discovered through Einstein@Home, one of the world's most-popular volunteer computing projects, proves the scientific value of such efforts, according to one of the pioneers of network computing.

The pulsar, reported in the Aug. 13 issue of the journal Science, is a major discovery by a volunteer computing project, according to David Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley. Anderson built the BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) platform that made Einstein@Home possible.

"There are a lot of volunteer computing projects, and many have made scientific progress, but it has been largely incremental," said Anderson, project director of 11-year old SETI@home, the most popular volunteer computing project in history. "This is the first discovery of something new."

Einstein@home, launched in 2005, was one of the first computer-sourcing projects built on the BOINC platform. It uses donated time from the home and office computers — some 500,000 in all of 250,000 volunteers from 192 countries. Anderson hopes that the achievement of Einstein@home will encourage more scientists to use volunteer computing.

"I hope that the success of Einstein@home creates an awareness in the scientific world that volunteer computing can produce really good science," he said. "And more science projects will lead to more volunteerism as well."

The lucky discoverers of the pulsar were Chris and Helen Colvin of Ames, Iowa, and Daniel Gebhardt of Universitat Mainz in Musikinformatik, Germany, who are credited in the Science paper.

The new pulsar — called PSR J2007+2722 — is a neutron star that rotates 41 times per second. It is located in the Milky Way Galaxy approximately 17,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula.

Unlike most pulsars that spin as quickly and steadily, PSR J2007+2722 sits alone in space and has no orbiting companion star. Astronomers consider it especially interesting since it is likely a "recycled pulsar" that was originally part of a binary system but then lost its companion. However, they can not rule out that it may be a young pulsar born with a lower-than-usual magnetic field.

Einstein@Home, based at the Center for Gravitation and Cosmology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, has been searching for gravitational waves since 2005, using data from the U.S. Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). Starting in March 2009, Einstein@Home also began searching for signals from radio pulsars in astronomical observations from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Arecibo is the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, and is managed by Cornell University. About one-third of Einstein@Home's computing capacity is used to search Arecibo data.

"This is a thrilling moment for Einstein@Home and our volunteers. It proves that public participation can discover new things in our universe. I hope it inspires more people to join us to help find other secrets hidden in the data," said Bruce Allen, leader of the Einstein@Home project, director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute), and adjunct professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The paper, "Pulsar Discovery by Global Volunteer Computing," is authored by Allen's graduate student, Benjamin Knispel, from the Albert Einstein Institute; Allen; James M. Cordes, Cornell professor of astronomy and chair of the Pulsar ALFA (Arecibo L-band Feed Array) Consortium; and a team of collaborators. It announces the first genuine astronomical discovery by a public volunteer distributed computing project.

"No matter what else we find out about it, this pulsar is bound to be extremely interesting for understanding the basic physics of neutron stars and how they form. Its discovery has required a complex system that includes the Arecibo telescope and computing resources at the Albert Einstein Institute, the Cornell Center for Advanced Computing, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to be able to send data out worldwide to Einstein@Home volunteers," Cordes said.

Anderson's group at UC Berkeley continues to improve BOINC, and is developing another platform called Bossa that makes it easier to create crowd-sourcing projects that rely on humans as well as computers. One such project, spearheaded by UC Berkeley paleoanthropologist Tim White, will invite volunteers to look at aerial photos of fossil-rich areas of Ethiopia in search of human artifacts.

The Arecibo Observatory is funded by the National Science Foundation, which collaborates with the Max Planck Gesellschaft to support Einstein@Home.

— UC Berkeley News Office


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