- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

Wanna analyze your very own molecule and find a cure for smallpox? Or at least do part of the analysis and maybe help a little? Easy. Go to grid.org, download the software, and you can be a research biochemist in minutes.
Smallpox is a big deal these days, and ought to be, because terrorists might have the virus. It's a disease that, unlike anthrax, could kill huge numbers of people and leave twice as many scarred horribly for life. About 30 percent of those infected die. Humans are the only species that get it.
Those who are graying remember that as children they were regularly vaccinated and had those little scars on their shoulders. The vaccine worked really well. In 1980, smallpox was declared extinct, even though everyone knew it wasn't. It still existed in biological-warfare labs in Russia, the United States, and perhaps now exists places we don't know about.
So if it got loose today, when nobody is vaccinated, it would wreak havoc. It isn't a very smart weapon: If country X released it in the United States, it would get back before long to country X, which isn't vaccinated either.
So, in addition to manufacturing vaccine again, it would be nice to have a cure. That's where you come in as a researcher.
One way to kill a virus is to find a molecule that bonds to it and gums it up. It then ceases to be a dangerous virus and becomes a small piece of useless crud. The trick is to find a molecule with the right shape and charge characteristics to stick. There are at least two ways to do this.
The first is to get a bunch of laboratories and fill them with technicians who will try one molecule after another until they find one that works. This has been successful. But it is slow and tedious, and it costs a fortune.
A better way is to have a computer do the (massively difficult) calculations to figure out what molecule ought to work. Thing is, it takes just enormous amounts of figuring. There are millions of molecules to look at. Where to get computers monstrous enough?
Answer: Find a way to hook a bazillion personal computers together so that they work on the problem when they aren't doing anything else. This isn't a new idea: It has been done to aid the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which reasonably predictably didn't find any.
But it's a good idea. The machines sitting on our desks these days are not minor computers any longer. They usually have way more power than we need and, when thescreen saver comes on, they are doing nothing at all. So, get people to download some software that gets data from the Internet, and sends completed calculations back, and voila, a perfectly huge supercomputer. Now, when the screen saver is on, your computer is being useful.
A company called United Devices (ud.com) handles the linking of more than 1.8 million machines in 218 countries with its Global Metaprocessor service, and says that it has completed the equivalent of 6,300 computer years in 14 days. Exactly what this means isn't clear, but it is certainly a whole lot of computing.
Grid.org is nothing if not up to date: "By supporting the PatriotGrid, your PC will help power counter-bioterrorism related drug discovery & projects. Signing up means participating in all new projects that fall under this important category. So you're not just joining a project you're joining a cause."
United Devices offers the computer service as an approach to whatever scientific problem needs it. It isn't a specialized smallpox-cure program. It has forms you can fill out to propose your research. It turns the whole world into a massive distributed computer.
The planet is your hard drive.


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