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Huge Atom Smasher Seeks Citizen Cybersleuths

LHC particle collisions
A simulation of a particle collision inside the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland. When two protons collide inside the machine, they create an energetic explosion that gives rise to new and exotic particles. (Image credit: CERN)

The world’s largest particle accelerator is asking for your help. Members of the public are invited to assist in the search for the Higgs boson, also dubbed the "God particle," and other elusive particles by using their home computers to process data.

Volunteers can donate computer downtime to the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratory near Geneva. At this 17-mile (27 kilometer) underground ring, physicists are smashing together protons at near the speed of light to create new particles that might reveal some of the mysteries of nature.

"Volunteers can now actively help physicists in the search for new fundamental particles that will provide insights into the origin of our universe, by contributing spare computing power from their personal computers and laptops," CERN officials wrote in a statement.

The program, called LHC@home, is similar to popular distributed computing projects like SETI@home (where volunteers aid in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), Folding@home (for protein folding research) and others.

Participants in LHC@home will use their computers to simulate collisions like the ones going on inside the massive atom smasher to help researchers categorize and understand the results they find. Volunteers may help LHC scientists identify never-before-seen particles like the Higgs boson, which is theorized to explain why all other particles have mass. [Video: How the LHC Will Search For Exotic Magnetic Particles]

The program is organized by the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, a partnership between CERN, the U.N. Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva, to promote volunteer-based science in the European Year of Volunteering 2011.

"Citizen cyberscience is a grass-roots movement, which challenges the assumption that only professionals can do science," Pierre Spierer, vice rector for research at the University of Geneva, said in a statement. "Given the right tools and incentives, and some online training, millions of enthusiastic volunteers can make a real difference, contributing to significant scientific discoveries."

Most of the work, in fact, happens without any human input at all, when people simply allow their computers to work on problems in the background when their processing power wouldn't have been used.

Other projects by the Citizen Cyberscience Centre include the Computing for Clean Water project, another distributed computing program focused on research into low-cost water filters for the developing world, and a research program on disaster damage assessment.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitzFor more science news, follow LiveScience on twitter @livescience.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both and Live Science.