Thursday, December 27, 2007

Guest Entry: Maggie's Christmas Present

This story was recently posted by my friend, Maggie on a little weight loss support forum where we are both members.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And best wishes for the new year. I got a most unusual gift for Christmas this year. I posted about it at HDAC but thought you might be interested in what is going on in science today............

Jason admired the bracelet watch that Tony had given me for Christmas and said, “I have a gift for you, too. It’s not as pretty as Dad’s.” He brought a sack to my desk and took out a box from it. The box was marked PlayStation 3.

I was confused and thought, “PlayStation 3? Isn’t that the unit that kids play games on?” Jason opened the box and took out a disc of a Spiderman game. Somehow I just couldn’t see myself sitting around in my pajamas playing a Spiderman game. I didn’t know what to say. Maggie without words? Never! But it was true. I didn’t know what to say. How about, “Can you get your money back? Is it returnable?”

Jason was clearly enjoying my confusion but finally took pity on me and began to explain. “The PlayStation 3 is a super fast computer. It is much faster than my computer and mine is the fastest PC around.”

Still not understanding, I thought, “Okay, so I can play Spiderman super fast?”

Jason said that this computer will probably never be used to play a game. It is for folding at home.

Folding at home is a distributed computer project designed by Stanford University. The project’s goal is to understand protein folding and mis-folding and how they relate to diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Mad Cow Disease, some cancers and the biggie for all of us, Huntington’s Disease.

Basically, how it works is that a small part of a folding problem is sent through the Internet to computers around the world. The program will run in the background using unused CPU power or run as a screen saver. When the owner of the computer is away and not using it, the software written at Stanford uses the computer to fold and discontinues the folding when the owner returns to use his computer again. When the problem unit is completed it is returned to Stanford and reassembled into the collected data. Over a million computers are participating in the folding project and over 27,000 of those are PlayStations. Sony sells the PlayStation with the software for folding already installed. And we have already learned more than was thought possible. Fifty-four scientific papers have been published using the information gained. It gives me even more hope that a cure for Huntington’s is near.

Collectively, the computers make up the fastest computer in the world. And it is working for us!

Jason set up my PlayStation 3 in our conference room at work and we watched the graphics on our screen. A protein molecule tumbles over and over with a world map in the background showing the approximate location of the computers that are being used in the project. We registered my computer and soon had our first unit of work. The results of individual computers is shown at a website and I was delighted to see this morning that I had completed 1 unit of CPU work. When we tire of the graphics or need the screen for other purposes, the PlayStation 3 will be installed in the server room to run 24/7 without a holiday, even Christmas.

I know my little PlayStation 3 is only one in the million working to solve the mystery of folding and mis-folding and how they relate to HD, but I get a deep satisfaction that it is there, contributing to the solution.

Thank you for the gift, Jason.


Maggie's husband Tony has Huntington's Disease.