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!

Can green technology help us get out of the red?

Most people know that the world has recently emerged from an economic recession. Many people also know that we are all dangerously close to slipping back in, and are replying on governments around the world to keep us in the black.

However, has anyone thought about green technology as a way of helping steer an economy back to growth and prosper?

Well it would appear that Scotland might be doing just that, as they are trying to encourage as many as 600 companies to move into the ‘green economy’ in order to boost profitability. The green economy consists mainly of renewable energy sources, and low-carbon technologies.

Scottish flag - offshore wind farm

Scotland seem to have recognised that there could soon be big money in this industry, hence the drive towards getting more firms into the industry.

In its attempts to become the industry leader in green technology, Scotland’s Finance Secretary, John Swinney has said that he wants to increase exports 50% by 2017 and encourage inward investment in green and low-carbon technologies.

Unemployment seems to be a problem everywhere at the moment, but Mr Swinney’s new ‘green growth’ plans are likely to create around 130,000 jobs by the year 2020.

What do you think, is Scotland taking a step in the right direction by investing in green technologies, or is is a risky option to take given the current global economic climate?