Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Science Game: FoldIt (and some thoughts on spam)

Sometimes even the spam is interesting.

I'm working on the next issue of Math Teachers at Play, which goes up on Friday. So far I've gotten 4 real submissions for it, and about 20 spams. The spams are things like '50 tips for teachers', and '100 great online college degree programs'. I check each one to see if it would fit our blog carnival. Usually the title is enough ... Delete.

So today I got one that was something like '50 serious educational games'. I thought it might be worth checking into whether there were any good math games. One said it was math, but it didn't look promising. There was a science game, though, that got me excited: FoldIt. It's real science, protein folding, and it looks like it might be an interesting game. It sounds like something I might even call math, since it's about space and shape issues. An even bigger bonus: Apparently, people playing the game may even be able to help further the study of protein folding, by helping the researchers understand how to tell computers what to look for (if I'm understanding this right).

What shape will a protein fold into? Even though proteins are just a long chain of amino acids, they don't like to stay stretched out in a straight line. The protein folds up to make a compact blob, but as it does, it keeps some amino acids near the center of the blob, and others outside; and it keeps some pairs of amino acids close together and others far apart. Every kind of protein folds up into a very specific shape -- the same shape every time. Most proteins do this all by themselves, although some need extra help to fold into the right shape. The unique shape of a particular protein is the most stable state it can adopt. Picture a ball at the top of a hill -- the ball will always roll down to the bottom. If you try to put the ball back on top it will still roll down to the bottom of the hill because that is where it is most stable.

Unfortunately, I downloaded the Mac version and got the message: You cannot open the application “Foldit” because it is not supported on this architecture. Bummer. I wonder if any of you would like to try it out, and tell me what you think? (If it looks good to any of you, I'll try harder to contact them and ask how I can get it working on my mac.)

If it's good, I would want to thank the spammer, but that turns out to be dangerous. Another carnival host found that out the hard way. She suddenly started getting inundated by junk email, and traced it back to a message she had sent to one of these people explaining why their submissions didn't fit. So I'll have to say "Thanks, KH!" here, even though I know she'll never see it. ;^)


  1. Haven't tried out the software yet, but I wanted to send you some links to papers on the mathematics of folding - which has applicaitons to the study of protien folding, as explored in this software.

    You should check out Erik Demaine's page, and particularly his paper "A Survey of Folding and Unfolding in Computational Geometry." The animations on his site are neat too.

    A lot of the advances in the understanding of folding and unfolding have come from the study of the mathematics origami. Robert Lang's page is a great place to start on this topic. I really looking forward to seeing this film on the subject.

  2. Thank you! How ironic - I hadn't even made the connection with origami, and I'm planning to do a math salon in 4 days on origami. I'm not at all ready for it, and looking at those will be helpful.


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