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Incoming Dust January 13, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning, Online Tools.
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aerogel   Today my wife sent me an article that caught my eye. Actually it captured the attention of that part of my mind that enjoys combining and gloming together disparate points into larger trends and more significant movements.

Scientists are calling on the public to search for microscopic bits of stardust that have been captured in aerogel by a satellite and returned to earth this week. The program’s name is Stardust@Home and will require an estimated 30,000 hours to examine the gel to find the microscopic bits. This is the same, they say, as finding 45 ants in a football field.

This reminded me of some other computing projects like SETI@Home in which I was a participant. For that project, a vast network of computer users downloaded chunks of data from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) project and helped to analyze twenty seconds of sound at a time. This was one of the earliest uses of what is known as grid computing. There have been many since. Imagine taking advantage the unused power of thousands of computers during their idle moments. Such computing power could be used to store and analyze complex problems like the sequences of genes. Scientists with limited resources are putting to use a huge army of sympathetic non-scientists and amateurs to help them with real and meaningful research.One project I started to become involved with involved the analysis of hundreds of photographs taken by a night sky survey. The idea was that individuals, including students, with a little time on their hands, could examine images for signs of potential earth grazing asteroids and report their finds to scientists at the National Observatory. One of my favorite projects of this sort involved students who would report to a database any road kill they identified on drives through the countryside. Just because you are still in middle school or high school there is no reason you cannot be a part of a major discovery. In 2000, three high school students discovered a neutron star by examining data from the Chandra satellite. In 1998, three students in Massachusetts discovered an asteroid in the Kuiper Belt. Students have even discovered new ants and orchids.

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