ESO/G. Beccari

Meet BOINC. That’s short for the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, online open-source software that lets volunteers plug their computers and Android smartphones and tablets into a worldwide computer network that crunches data for science. This year, it’ll be 20 years since the idea for the project first emerged. Thanks to BOINC, our gadgets can make up a virtual supercomputer that feeds off their unused processing power.

BOINC software runs when your computer isn’t busy doing something else. On an Android phone, it waits until the device is charging and connected to Wi-Fi. That way, it doesn’t eat up your battery or rack up data charges on your next phone bill.

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“Our goal in BOINC is not to use people’s computers 24 hours a day. It’s to use them when they’re on, but not doing something else,” said David Anderson, the UC Berkeley computer scientist at the helm of the BOINC project. “The operating system does the scientific computing only if there’s no other program that wants the [processor].”

There are dozens of projects to choose from — spanning planetary science, cybersecurity, particle physics and human disease — we’ve highlighted some to give you a flavor of the types of science projects you can contribute to.

Ebola

Ebola particles budding from a cell. Image: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Last month, IBM’s World Community Grid — one of the most active BOINC projects — launched a new app that will help scientists at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California screen compounds in the hopes of finding drug candidates for Ebola, the deadly disease that’s been plaguing West Africa for months.

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Last month, IBM’s World Community Grid — one of the most active BOINC projects — launched a new app that will help scientists at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California screen compounds in the hopes of finding drug candidates for Ebola, the deadly disease that’s been plaguing West Africa for months.

Traditionally, big pharma hasn’t been interested in diseases like Ebola and malaria because they’re not big money-makers like cholesterol or erectile dysfunction drugs. In part, that means there’s less cash for R&D for these conditions, and therefore, a shortage of meds.  But, as we’ve seen recently, they can be just as important.

So, citizen-science projects like the World Community Grid — which turns 10 this year — can help scientists speed up research on important so-called neglected diseases.

"This could let us do in months what it would otherwise take years and years to do," Erica Ollmann Saphire, a biomedical researcher at Scripps, told the Associated Press.

If you want to load up on neglected-diseases projects, there's also the FightNeglectedDiseases@Home and Malariacontrol.net.

Cryptography

Sadly, we all know passwords are easy to crack. We've all been on the receiving end of an email from LinkedIn, Evernote, Gmail, or some other giant web service saying our accounts have been hacked and our emails released.

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Some of these uber cyber-nuisances boil down to weak hashes. A hash is a method internet companies use to secure our passwords. Basically, it's a mathematical formula for translating your very personal passwords into a string of characters of set length. It's a way of masking the identity of what you type to gain access into your accounts.

But, often, these hashes are fairly week. So, cryptologists at FreeRainbowTables.com want "to give the world's security experts the best tools available for detecting weak hashes," according to the project's website. "This can help them to force the developers to use more secure methods of password protection."

They do this is by creating rainbow chains, which are tables for cracking passwords. With a distributed supercomputer, like the one made possible by BOINC, researchers say they can build massive rainbow tables that can crack longer and longer passwords.

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Think about it: you can help cryptologists make your accounts a bit more secure. That's something we can all get behind until facial recognition to unlock our devices becomes mainstream.

ATLAS

The Atlas accelerator. Photo: Nikolai Topilin

If your shot at becoming a particle physicist was shattered by bad math skills, then the ATLAS@Home project might make your childhood dreams come true, sort of. No actual knowledge of particle physics — or complicated equations — is required. By signing up for this project, you can help the crew at CERN in Geneva study particles like quarks, neutrinos and muons and search for new ones, like supersymmetric bosons and fermions.

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"Just the same way an atom is built as a core and electrons, the particles in the core are build on something too," physicist Sascha Mehlhase, who built a LEGO replica of the ATLAS accelerator, told me in 2012.

ATLAS is the roughly 150-foot long, 7,000-ton particle detector at CERN that scientists recently used to discover the elusive Higgs boson.

The ATLAS@Home project is still under development, so you might get some error messages, the website warns. But you can always drop them a line to report any issues.

Super E.T.s

SETI@Home was BOINC’s original project. In 1995, David Gedye proposed "building" a virtual supercomputer out of regular, consumer internet-connected computers. The idea captivated computer scientists at Berkeley. Four years later, in May 1999, SETI@Home launched. SETI, which is run out of NASA, is short for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

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The project "uses radio telescopes to listen for narrow-bandwidth radio signals from space. Such signals are not known to occur naturally, so a detection would provide evidence of extraterrestrial technology," according to the website.

Technology might be a spot-on description. Some scientists and philosophers believe that the main "life form" in space might be artificial intelligence.

“Most people have an iconic idea of aliens as these biological creatures, but that doesn’t make any sense from a timescale argument,” SETI director Seth Shostak told Motherboard. “I’ve bet dozens of astronomers coffee that if we pick up an alien signal, it’ll be artificial life."

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"In all likelihood," he added "this intelligence will be way more sophisticated than anything humans can understand.”

Hopefully, that super-AI won't be the stuff of nightmares some scientists like Stephen Hawking, have been warning us about of late.

The Beginning of Time

While some look for extraterrestrial intelligent beings, other researchers are searching for pulsars — rotating stars that unleash beams of electromagnetic radiation — black holes, and gravitational waves.

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The Einstein@Home project feeds off data from the LIGO gravitational-wave detectors, the Arecibo radio telescope, and the Fermi gamma-ray satellite. Already more than 380,000 volunteers have helped discover more than 30 pulsars. But there's more work to do.

"Our long-term goal is to make the first direct detections of gravitational-wave emission from spinning neutron stars," according to the website. Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime.

Albert Einstein's century-old theory of relativity predicts gravitational waves exist, but they hadn't been detected until last March.

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The discovery "is literally a window back to almost the beginning of time itself,” physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who was not involved with the work, told WIRED.

The findings still need to be replicated and there's been widespread criticism of the results since. So, as the Einstein@Home website says, you can still do your part to help scientists "open up a new window on the universe, and usher in a new era in astronomy."

Above: GIF of the brightest pulsar detected to date, care of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It lives in the Messier 82, a whopping 12 light years away. A single light year is roughly 6 trillion miles.

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Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.