I donated (one of) my brains to Einstein’s science

Remember the Rolling Stones’ song 2000 Light Years From Home and James Tiptree’s Jr.’s brilliant short story collection 10,000 Light Years From Home?  Wanna try to reach out 40 megalights?  Forty million lightyears from home?  Here’s how, even without the latest and greatest in home puters.

The Einstein @home organization has been running a BOINC distributed-computing program to process the LIGO gravitational-wave sensors’ science runs.  Starting in July 2006, I turned one of my twin puters on and have let it run since then – over two years – sifting this database, one work-unit at a time.  The energy cost was U$12-16 per month in electricity, raising to a peak this year at 21 cents per kilowatt-hour in Boston for residential customers.  The total downtime was less than two weeks over 27 months.

My puter is HAL91, the backup twin to HAL90, both bought Jan 2004.  The CPU is an 64-bit Athlon 3000 1.9 Ghz, using a “mere gig of memory.”  Each has a fifth of a terabyte in disk storage in two hard drives. By buying cutting-edge 2002 technology in 2004, I saved U$525 per CPU, and could afford 2 desktops, not one. So my third-of-a-century long quest to cheaply reproduce a six-player citwar space combat game experience I had in DEC’s Maynard Mill one Saturday night in 1976 had succeeded. The 2nd hard drive in each was installed in 2006, at half the price of the primary drive.

The point being that you can buy perfectly usable puters and save one-third to one-half on the cost by not buying this year’s processors or video cards.  For non-gamers or movie makers, that’s all the processor power you need.

The BOINC projects use a common credit-giving system.  I only run Einstein @Home, after originally starting with SETI @Home.  Over 700,000 puters, about half of the total registered, have contributed spare CPU cycles to this project. In any given week, one-tenth of those send in completed work-units, that may take 14 hours each for a home computer to process, and get 233 or so credits in return.

Now, you could just track your progress and projected future rank as an individual amongst the 212,000 total members, or you can join one of 8200+ teams. I chose an AMD CPU chip team called with accuracy and conciseness the “AMD Users,” and my stats are displayed here as SpikeAr. It took a while to get the 3,000 credits to move into the top 100 team members screen, but now with over 400 members from 50 nations, only 67 of whom are active, it takes over 41,000 credits to move onto the first 100 teammember screen.

My overall ranking, which had been as high as 2200th at one time has dropped now to 3245th place, and projected to descend to 6000th; but this is very good for a single old puter competing against network arrays. I have one of the highest single-desktop totals in the project.

And, more importantly, someday I’ll be part of the sieve that first hears a gravitational wavepulse. In the meantime, we’ve tuned LIGO from one-tenth the needed sensitivity, to one-half, then to the edge of theoretical detection.  And that detection range is 14 megaparsecs, roughly 40 million light-years, which includes dozens of galaxies.  So when 2 black holes merge … we’ll be listening to the echoes.

Consider joining us! As this server info page shows, our 70,000+ puters are the equivalent of a 130 teraflop supercomputer, somewhere between the top twenty to fifty in the world.

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