If you thought that online gamers were just a load of geeks, incapable of socializing with the outside world, and living within the confines of their own in their bedrooms, you might like to have a look this website called Foldit. Foldit is a game, but its aim is to solve puzzles for science, and players have recently made some remarkable inroads into the world of protein modelling. Below is a model of an Amino Acid, and it is this type of thing that gamers manipulate. This article that explains the process is in the online journal Nature, Structure and Molecular Biology, and begins with the following statement:
“Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.”
The fold it game has existed for a couple of years now. Players create protein structures, with the most stable and low energy structures scoring the most points.
The gamers in general are not scientists and they manually manipulate the model from a base form that is provided to them at the start of the operation. They have a variety of tools but the most important thing is that they have better spatial reasoning skills than computers. Computer models had tried to solve the problem cited above for 10 years without success, gamers produced an adequate model that was then refined by scientists in just 3 weeks.
Just this week the Astronomy and Telescope journal is entitled Citizen Science, and addresses the issue of amateurs classifying high definition photos of far off galaxies. They say that it is the future of astronomic discovery. See my post on The Bassetti Foundation website for a lay explanation.
The gaming process is an interesting innovation though, as it uses skills that may not be particularly associated with science, but reveal themselves to be extremely important.
A couple of years ago 2 satellites collided destroying both of them, one had already been decommissioned but the other was a communication carrier that was still in use. Also recently, astronauts had to get in to the emergency escape capsule on the International Space Station as debris passed close by.
There are about 22000 big pieces of debris floating round the Earth and many more smaller but potentially equally damaging pieces, and the problem is the lack of international agreement upon the use of near space. Almost everything from Sputnik onward is still floating about up there. The Chinese military destroyed one of their disused military satellites in an experiment in 2007 but that just created thousands more potentially dangerous pieces. More of a political action than a potential solution.
Now maybe we can live with the odd collision now and again, but a related and really serious problem and the underlying cause, is our reliance on this technology. Scientists talk about potential damage from solar flares and the likes, that might even knock the entire system out for an undefined period of time. This would have catastrophic effects on the world, no Satellite navigation means no aeroplanes, ships navigating by the stars, emergency services having to rush out and buy maps of the city, UPS and their competitors losing their way, and even worse than all this Sainsbury’s not being able to deliver Mrs French’s vegetables on time.
Easy to take lightly but really quite a serious problem.
Dependence is a difficult thing to overcome, but scientists are experimenting with bringing old satellites back to Earth. A sort of Kite is being trialled that once attached to its objective slows it down so that it enters the atmosphere and burns up, but this must be seen against a backdrop of more satellites being launched every month. They are both commercially and militarily extremely important.
Who has the right to govern space though? Competition rules and it is big business.
I find myself in Boston in the US today, after a long couple of flights. Milan to Dublin wasn’t long but I only had an hour for the connection in Dublin, and in Milan they could not print my boarding cards so I had to go through a sort of check in process again – and it took ages.
First I queued up for 20 minutes to get my boarding card, no problem. Than I had to go through US clearance, new to me, but do what the man says when at the airport I always say. An incredibly long and arduous process of form filling in a hurry, through the body scanner, fingerprints, mug shot, another body scanner without shoes, constant race against time, very stressful (with 2 small children) and finally to the plane 2 minutes before leaving. Oh but it didn’t leave. We had to wait for the other late arrivers to get US clearance, so we waited 45 minutes on a full Airbus for the last few people.
A flexible border?
Something struck me at the time, the security personnel were all American and the stars and stripes were everywhere. Then the strangest thing. We arrived in Boston and we didn’t have to clear customs or show our passports! In fact we came in through the domestic arrivals terminal and the person waiting for us was in the wrong place.
Then it struck me, we had come on a domestic flight over the Atlantic. The US border has moved, it now takes in part of Dublin airport!
The technology was incredible, I had to identify my bags on a photo as they were being loaded onto the plane, and they have all the information they need about me.
But just because the possibility exists and technological advancements mean that the border can move and information can be sent in real time to the rightful authorities does a state (the most powerful state in the world) have the right to use it in this way? And what about the political implications? I suspect that the Tajikistan government would find themselves in difficulty during the negotiation process if they wanted to enforce a similar line.
Rule Britannia, the waves maybe but certainly not the skies!