Humanities Forum - Joseph November (University of South Carolina), “Revolution@home: Distributed Computing and the Public’s New Role in Science”

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 ( 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm )

Location: [email protected]

Over the past decade millions of people have played games and donated processing time on their personal computers to aid scientific projects. The media—and indeed many scientists—have hyped these projects, frequently overstating the agency of individual volunteers and largely ignoring the issue of the robustness of the models into which so many millennia of computer run time have been invested. However, distributed computing is becoming increasingly important and popular in science; building vast computer networks for research has necessitated a new, unprecedentedly intimate relationship between scientists and the public.

To demonstrate the insights that can be reaped by historically examining scientific distributed computing projects, this talk makes a case study of the use of distributed computing in efforts to model protein folding. Specifically, it will examine the Folding@home and Foldit projects, which have respectively harnessed 200,000 personal computers and 200,000 hours of video gamers’ time to generate simulations of the processes through which proteins reach their final forms – errors in protein folding are believed to cause Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and many forms of cancer. Along the way, he will compare the protein projects to similar ones that are also characterized by massive citizen involvement.

Joseph November is an Associate Professor of History and a McCausland Faculty Fellow at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches history of science, medicine, and technology. He is particularly interested in how developments in information technology and biomedicine have shaped one another. His award-winning book, Biomedical Computing: Digitizing Life in the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), investigates the changes computers brought to the study of life as well as the changes the life sciences brought to the development of computing. November holds a Ph.D. in history of science from Princeton University. In 2007 and 2008, he served as a Stetten Fellow at the National Institutes of Health.