Want to do your bit for science? LHC@home

What on earth is LHC@home?

LHC@home stands for Large Hadron Collider at home. LHC@home is a new project involving your PC and the Large Hadron Collider. But why do they need your PC?

Too much data

Basically, the Large Hadron Collider throws particles around a 27km tunnel underneath the Swiss Alps and then smashes them into each other. The process is much more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

All this creates astronomical amounts of data, far too much for the projects computers to cope with. So how are the scientists ever going to make sense of the data they have gathered? The answer: you.

LHC@home 2.0

Way back in 2004 there was the idea to use the computing power of willing members of the public, to help analyse the data collected from the collider. This project was called LHC@home. To say the least, it didn’t really work out as planned, which is why project LHC@home 2.0 is now underway.

LHC@home 2.0 is an improved and updated version of LHC@home. Home computers are now much more powerful than in 2004 meaning that they are more likely to be able to cope with the complexity of simulating highly complex particle collisions.

The public aren’t going to be doing all the work, the Large Hadron Collider has it’s own massive supercomputer network, however by harnessing the spare capacity on (hopefully soon to be) millions of peoples home PC’s worldwide, then data can be analysed much faster.


LHC@home isn’t the first project of it’s kind however. SETI@home is another project which users can get involved in. All you do is install a screen saver and then when you are not using your PC, it starts to help in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence!

SETI@home screen saver

The SETI@home project screen saver

Do your bit for science!

Why not do your bit for science and offer your PC to help the LHC@home or SETI@home project?

Prosthetic limb technology and elective amputation

Recently on the BBC World Service I followed a news article about a young man who decided to have his hand amputated in order to have a prosthetic version fitted. His hand had been damaged in a motorbike accident and was not fully functioning, but was however still attached to his arm.

His decision rather took me aback, here was a person choosing to improve the performance of a hand with a replacement. This is fundamentally different to fitting a prosthetic hand to a person that has either lost one or was born without one. The problem seems to be in the quality of prosthetic limbs.

A prosthetic hand

An example of a high technology prosthetic hand

Prosthetic limbs can be operated through the existing muscle system, for example they can be attached to existing muscles in the arm or by using electrical impulses. In this case the muscle use generates an electrical impulse that makes the hand move.

Scientists are currently testing a system that works directly from the brain. Implants register the brain’s impulses and send them directly to the hand. You think about the movement and the hand moves.

There is another advantage too, sensors in the fingers can send signals back to the brain so the user can actually feel the object they are touching.

All of this raises some questions, soon technology will provide us with a fully functioning prosthetic hand that the user controls directly with their brain. It will be hard wearing, reliable and you can touch hot things without burning yourself, it will in fact be better that a human hand.

People might then have elective amputation in order to get one. Who can make legal and ethical decisions about such an intervention? This argument also has implications for sport. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has recently qualified for the Olympic Games in London and will be competing with 2 prosthetic legs.

Oscar Pistorius - the fastest man on no legs

Nicknamed 'the fastest man on no legs' this is Oscar Pistorius in Greenwich London before next years Olympics

Here we are moving into a discussion about the confines of the human body, but also about enhancement. Maybe he even has an advantage over human legged athletes.

Have a look at Transcendent Man for a futurist view of how robotics and medicine in general might change humanity in the future.

Further discussion of the ethical and responsibility issues raised by scientific advancement and innovation can be found on the Bassetti Foundation website, including all the links relating to the stories above. I collaborate with the foundation and publish through their site.

Search engines are changing the way our memory works

A recent article in Science Mag suggests that the use of computers and the internet might actually be changing the way our memory works.

A series of psychology experiments recently carried out have shown that sometimes, when people were presented with hard to answer questions, they began to think of computers.

If participants believed that it would be easy to find answers on Google later, then they had poorer recall of the actual answer, and yet a greater memory of where the answer was stored.

A head x-ray showing someone with a computer for a brainThe researchers said that the internet acts as a tool which we now depend upon to to aid our memories, by remembering some data for us.

Here is the abstract for the journal entry

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

In more simplified English, what this is basically saying is that it is now much easier to access data online, mainly thanks to search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. If we have a question, we can find the answer in seconds.

This has lead the the human brain associating the thought of a problem with computers, as it believes that the internet will be the source of the solution. Search engines are now embeded so much in our brain, that when we think of a problem, we no longer bother trying to work out the answer for ourselves, but instead we associate the possibility of finding the solution of the problem with a search engine.

Let’s be honest, who hasn’t been bugged by something, asked someone else who also wasn’t able to help and as a result was either told “Google it” or thought “I could Google that”? I have, in fact I would say it happens on a weekly basis!

Question time

So what do you think? Are computers, the internet and search engines making us stupid, or is it just that we are now adapting as a race to more efficient ways of finding out information?