Rensselaer Research Review Winter 2009-10
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One possible model for the Sagittarius Dwarf Streamo
A top-down view of one possible model for the Sagittarius Dwarf Stream. The middle galaxy represents the Milky Way with the sun being the green dot within the disk. The blue stars are the general areas of the Sagittarius dwarf.
* A 3-D model of the Sagittarius Dwarf Stream
A 3-D model produced by David Law
at the University of Virginia. See video clip.
Watching in 3-D

The galactic computing project had very humble beginnings, according to Heidi Newberg, associate professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer. Her personal research to map the three-dimensional distribution of stars and matter in the Milky Way using data from the extensive Sloan Digital Sky Survey could not find the best model to map even a small section of a single galactic star stream in any reasonable amount of time.

“I was a researcher sitting in my office with a very big computational problem to solve and very little personal computational power or time at my fingertips,” Newberg said. “Working with the MilkyWay@Home platform, I now have the opportunity to use a massive computational resource that I simply could not have as a single faculty researcher, working on a single research problem.”

Before taking the research to BOINC, Newberg worked with Malik Magdon-Ismail, associate professor of computer science, to create a stronger and faster algorithm for her project. Together they greatly increased the computational efficiency and set the groundwork for what would become the much larger MilkyWay@Home project.

Data Collecting Collaboration

“Scientists always need additional computing power,” Newberg said. “The massive amounts of data out there make it so that no amount of computational power is ever enough.” Thus, her work quickly exceeded the limits of laboratory computers and the collaboration to create MilkyWay@Home formally began in 2006 with the assistance of the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science Boleslaw Szymanski; Associate Professor of Computer Science Carlos Varela; postdoctoral research assistant Travis Desell; as well as other graduate and undergraduate students at Rensselaer.

“When you use a supercomputer, all the processors are the same and in the same location, so they are producing the same results at the same time,” Varela said. “With an extremely distributed system, like we have with MilkyWay@Home, we are working with many different operating systems that are located all over the globe. To work with such asynchronous results we developed entirely new algorithms to process work as it arrives in the system.” This makes data from even the slowest of computers still useful to the project, according to Varela. “Even the slowest computer can help if it is working on the correct problem in the search.”

In total, nine articles have been published and multiple public talks have been given regarding the computer science discoveries made during the creation of the project, and many more are expected as the refined algorithms are utilized for other scientific problems. Collaboration has already begun to develop a DNA@Home platform to find gene regulations sites on human DNA. Collaborations have also started with biophysicists and chemists on two other BOINC projects at Rensselaer to understand protein folding and to design new drugs and materials.

In addition to important discoveries in computer science and astronomy, the researchers said the project is also making important strides in efforts to include the public in scientific discovery. Since the project began, more than 45,000 individual users from 169 countries have donated computational power to the effort. Currently, approximately 17,000 users are active in the system.

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