New Pulsar Discovered--By Volunteers

Hi all -- Today I'm posting for guest blogger Rhitu Chatterjee, Science Reporter for PRI's The World radio program. With Rhitu's help, The World is starting a special partnership with NOVA to share science content, so you'll be hearing much more from her in the future. In the meantime, you can listen to her work on The World's science podcast.

From Rhitu:

On August 12, Science reported the discovery of a new pulsar in deep space. The find is exciting, but how it was found is arguably just as compelling.

First, the discovery. I won't bore you with the pulsar's name -- it's dry, numerical, and hard to remember. Suffice it to say it's a rare kind of pulsar that is located some 17,000 light-years from our planet. Pulsars are a kind of neutron star, formed when the core of a giant star collapses after a supernova. They are dense and emit pulses of radio waves, sort of like a lighthouse beacon in space.

Evidence for the pulsar lay hidden in data collected by the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico.
Image credit: Courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

"Pulsars are some of the coolest objects in astronomy," says study leader Bruce Allen, who directs the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hannover, Germany. Allen was more than happy to talk about the discovery, but he was equally animated talking about how it came about.
The project that detected the pulsar is called Einstein@Home. It relies on the computers of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens scattered around the globe. And it's part of a new and increasingly popular approach to doing science called volunteer or distributed computing. Researchers from a range of disciplines -- from astronomy to molecular biology -- are adopting it.

Allen started the Einstein@Home project in 2005. He was interested in finding Einstein's gravitational waves. As part of his theory of general relativity, Einstein had predicted that large objects like black holes and giant stars produce gravitational waves as they move through space. Nearly a century after Einstein published the general theory, scientists are still looking for those waves with the help of several observatories in the U.S., Germany, and Italy.

But they're producing more data than they can possibly analyze on their own computers, so Allen sought the help of volunteers. "Around the world there's now more than one billion PCs," he says. "And the collective power of all those computers is very hard to match."

In 2007, Allen expanded the project to sieve through radio telescope data to look for astronomical objects like pulsars. And the computers of three volunteers -- a couple in Iowa and a man in Germany -- made the discovery using a screen saver the three had downloaded from the Einstein@Home site.

I did a story about the pulsar discovery for PRI's The World radio program. You can listen to it here.

Do you volunteer your time or your computer to help scientists? We want to hear your story. You can share it with us in an online discussion in our Science Forum.

You can also learn more about Einstein@Home and other volunteer computing projects in that discussion. Through the Science Forum, Allen and his graduate student Benjamin Knispel are taking your comments and questions until August 26.

User Comments:

I feel as if Einstein knew something we will never know in all existence.

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