Online Gamers as Scientists

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.
An Amino Acid Protein MoleculeThis 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.

We could draw similarities to citizen science, having seen posts on this blog discussing loaning out some of your computer’s spare hard disk space and memory to solve scientific problems, and the now common use of similar set ups in astronomy.

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.

The world’s most powerful radio telescope is now functioning!

One of the best places to put a telescope is in the Atacama Desert, which is on the boarder of Chile and Peru – currently there are around 20 telescopes (both radio and optical) functioning in the area.

The Alma telescope

In the last few days, the world’s largest radio telescope, the Alma telescope, has began to function. Currently the telescope is made up of around 20 massive antenna dishes, which work in harmony to produce amazingly detailed pictures of outer space.

The project has input from all around the world, with Europe, North America, East Asia and the Republic of Chile forming a partnership, all doing their bit to add more antenna dishes and improve the telescope.

The ALMA Telescope

The antenna dishes that currently make up the telescope ALMA Telescope

When the project is completed, (hopefully within the next 20 years if all goes to plan) the telescope will have a whopping 66 dishes at its disposal, all of which it can use to gaze at the stars in fantastic detail!

Why the Atacama Desert?

You are probably wondering why the Atacama Desert is such a hotspot for telescope activity. Well there are a number of reasons, but the main ones are that it has clear skies almost all the time, in addition to very dry air – meaning that its hard for humans to breath there due to low oxygen levels, but for the telescopes, that means very little interference from anything in the space above.

Furthermore, the desert has many high flat areas, meaning that telescopes can be closer to the atmosphere, meaning even less interference. In addition to this, because the Atacama is a desert, it has virtually no light pollution. Basically it is an astronomer’s dream location!

Is it working?

The project has only been live for less than a week now, but already some stunning high detailed pictures of space area already beginning to emerge. Below is one of these great pictures:

ALMA Telescope deep space picture

A picture of deep space made possible by the ALMA Telescope

Because the light we can see here on earth is often millions, if not billions of years old, we are able to see into the past when looking up at the sky, using super powerful telescopes like the Alma one.

Scientists believe that we will be able to see events that happened just 400 million years after the big bang, due to the light delay, hence enabling us to understand better than ever before the formation of the early universe.

The Alma telescope is just one small cog in our planets fascinating scientific road of discovery, however one thing’s for sure: this ‘small cog’ should be able to help us understand a lot more about the universe than ever before!

Get ready to rewrite the laws of physics!

At the end of last week the news broke that scientists at Cern believed they had managed to send subatomic particles faster than the speed of light! This was big science news, and potentially big technology news in the future, however I choose not to write about the discovery straight away, as I wanted to find out as much as I could before reporting back to you.

What happened?

So what basically happened last week was that scientists in Cern (Switzerland) who have been blasting neutrinos (subatomic particles) 732km all the way to Gran Sasso (Italy) for a good few years now, collated all their data, and found that it would actually appear that the neutrinos arrived at Gran Sasso when light was still 18m away Basically the neutrinos raced light 732km and won by 0.00000006 seconds –  or as you could also say, 60 nanoseconds.

Is this true?

Scientists at Cern would tell you that their research has been checked and double checked, therefore what they have found out is true as they can’t seem to find a flaw in the research. However at the same time, almost any good physicist, and no doubt scientist working on the project would tell you that it can’t be true and that a variable must have been overlooked, as the results are impossible!


To verify the findings, two similar projects one in Hida (Japan) and the other in Chicago (USA) are attempting to recreate the experiment, and should have reliable enough results, hopefully, by some time next year.

Why is this important that the neutrinos travelled faster than the speed of light?

Einstein said that it was impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. If you like, light was the universal speed limit, no faster could anything ever go than light, you could go as fast, but not faster. This would mean that to get to the sun, (not that you would want to) the quickest you could ever do it would be in 8 minutes and 12 seconds.

The Sun

It takes around 8 minutes and 12 seconds for the light from the sun to reach earth

If the results from this experiment are correct, with some extra thrust, it would be possible for the neutrinos to get there even faster than light could.

How have they ‘broken the speed limit’?

You may be wondering how the neutrinos managed to get to Gran Sasso faster than light, and as are many scientists! There are two main theories of how they did it at the moment.

The first theory is that the speed of the neutrinos was so great they were simply able to travel faster than light.

The second, much more interesting theory is that the neutrinos didn’t exceed the speed of light, but instead dimension jumped! This means that they probably didn’t travel faster than the speed of light, just used another dimension to get from Cern to Gran Sasso.

The Doctor's TARDIS

The Doctor’s TARDIS (from Doctor Who) travels in time and space, this is only possible if you can either go faster then the speed of light, or jump dimensions

Physicist Brian Cox has an excellent explanation of how this could potentially work. When talking about extra dimensions he has said that:

“…if they are right, then things can take short cuts through the extra dimensions. It’s just like saying there is a speed limit that stops you going, lets say you go from London to Sidney, so you fly around the earth from London to Sidney, but the other way to do it, is go through digging a big tunnel, straight through the earth and that’s a shortcut. So in some ways, extra dimensions can behave like that, so what could be happening is the neutrinos could be taking a shortcut thorough another dimension.”

If this were right, then Einstein’s theory of special relativity wouldn’t be violated, just only valid in three dimensions.

What next?

The data is now out there on the net, for all scientists to analyse. Also, there are many places that are going to try and replicate the stud, to prove or disprove the results.

Hopefully we will have some more news soon, as to whether we actually can get things to travel faster than the speed of light, and as to whether there are are more than three (four including time) dimensions!

Anyone else slightly excited by this? 😀