Molecular Modeling
over Very-Low-Bandwidth
Computer Networks

Will Ware

14 Washington Avenue
Arlington, MA 02174

This is a draft paper for a talk at the
Fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.
The final version has been submitted
for publication in the special Conference issue of

CA. Copyright 1997 Will Ware, all rights reserved.

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The Internet offers the possibility of distributing a molecular modeling task over a number of geographically diverse computers. If these computations can be arranged not to intrude on the extant workloads of home and office desktop computers, vast resources may become available. This scenario offers extremely limited communication bandwidth, so the problem of partitioning molecular modeling (normally a fairly communication-intensive task) in a reasonably efficient manner becomes interesting. This paper presents a partitioning approach that will allow individual processors to simulate thousands of time steps before requiring communication with other processors.

Communication bandwidth is replaced by duplicated computations, exploiting the spatially localizable influence of each atom upon its neighbors. Processors are assigned to model overlapping cubical regions of space. Duplicate modeling results for overlap regions gradually diverge, due to differences in the boundary information available to neighboring processors. By characterizing these divergences and keeping track of them, processors can update one another locally, each processor acting as the expert on a small cubical region of space in the center of its own initially assigned area.

Each processor is ignorant of the world beyond its own initially assigned region. The unknown effects of that outer world propogate inward from the known border over time. The velocity of propogation is characterizable. A processor may continue computing without communicating with its neighbors until noticeable external effects reach its area of expertise. With periodic updates from its neighbors, a processor should be able to simulate for long periods of time.

The trade-off of communication bandwidth with duplicated computations is acceptable in the envisioned scenario. This approach might also be useful in more traditional computing environments of networked workstations, in cases where communication bandwidth may be significantly expensive compared to computation.


As work in nanotechnology progresses, interesting designs will grow to involve millions, perhaps billions, of atoms. There will be worthwhile task in molecular modeling that would unreasonably task the resources of a single processor. The illustration below represents such a task.

Numerous proposals have circulated over the past several months to perform molecular modeling in a distributed fashion on the Internet, by borrowing processor cycles from otherwise idle computers. An obvious approach to parallelizing the computation involved is to partition the task spatially, and assign a processor (or some fraction of the attention of a processor) to each region. This approach is illustrated below.

Such proposals are spurred in part by the success of various other cooperative distributed computations, notably searches of cryptographic key space. Cryptographic key searches are deceptive in their success. They are unusual among parallelizable computer programs in that they require little or no communication between processors. The difficulty of configuring a problem for parallel execution is highly dependent on the ratio of communication to computation performed by each computing node.

It turns out that molecular modeling, partitioned in the most obvious way illustrated above, would involve a burdensome level of communication. Because atoms may interact over distances of several nanometers, pairs of adjacent processors would need to be in constant communication during the progress of a simulation, exchanging large quantities of data at every time step. The situation is aggravated by the fact that atoms may freely wander from one region to another, requiring processors to renegotiate ownership of such atoms. Realistic simulations require sub-femtosecond time steps, and would desirably run for at least picoseconds and perhaps nanoseconds. The communication overhead involved would be likely to hopelessly cripple any Internet-based modeling effort based on the most obvious partitioning; see Appendix A.

The challenge, then, is:

to design a partitioning that allows terse, infrequent communication between processors.

Infrequent in this context means at most every few thousand time steps. In order to design such a partitioning, it is necessary to examine how algorithms are partitioned for parallel execution, and also to consider some of the physical and computational characteristics of molecular modeling.

Partitioning algorithms for parallel computation

In partitioning a problem for parallel execution, it is generally desirable to choose a partitioning that minimizes communication between processors. All forms of inter-processor communication involve non-trivial overhead, including both the logistical demands of communication (forming data into packets, implementing communication protocols, and so forth) and handshaking delays (where one processor must wait until another is ready to send or receive data). The earlier example of cryptographic key search is an ideal example of minimal communication between processors; each key can be tested separately without reference to any other key, so each processor is assigned a range of key space to test, which it can work on for hours or even weeks before its results must be compared with those of other processors.

One can construct a data dependency graph for an algorithm, a diagram that displays how each quantity or variable in the algorithm depends upon others. Such a diagram may be drawn as a network of vertices connected by edges, where each edge has a direction, or what graph theorists call a directed graph. One can then reasonably partition the algorithm for parallel computation by dividing the vertices of the directed graph into disjoint subsets, with as few edges as possible connecting any pair of subsets, since each edge represents an expensive communication event.

If the directed graph is drawn with inputs primarily on the left and outputs primarily on the right, then the horizontal dimension can be thought of as representing time. In this case, vertical partitions will create vertex subsets that are grouped temporally, which suggests pipelining as a parallelization scheme. Horizontal partitions (assuming they are not crossed by many graph edges) will tend to partition the problem along spatial lines.

If one draws a dependency graph for a simulation of molecular mechanics, dependency edges run densely along the time dimension. A pipelining approach offers little opportunity to minimize communication. But with the avoidance of electrostatic monopoles, and the resulting spatial localization of interatomic forces, it is reasonable to partition a simulation spatially.

Propogation of information within a molecular modeling task

If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders.
-- Hal Abelson

Mathematical models of molecular behavior vary in both accuracy and computational demand. At the high end, solutions are sought to Schrodinger's wave equation, indicating positional probability densities for the electrons belonging to each atom in the molecule. The most accurate (and computation-intensive) among such techniques is ab initio modeling, which avoids entirely the use of any empirically determined physical data, deriving everything, save for initial positions and velocities, from first principles. At the low end, simple mechanical models of molecular behavior employ masses and non-linear springs [Allinger 1977, Drexler 1992]. Mathematically, the model consists of a series of terms, each specifying potential energy as a function of some geometric property of the molecule (an interatomic distance, an angle between two bonds, or a dihedral angle involving three bonds). The sum of potential energies is taken as the potential energy for the entire structure (i.e. the energy required to deform it from its minimum-energy configuration to the present configuration), and the negative gradients of this energy with respect to the positions of the atomic nuclei are the forces assumed to be acting on those nuclei.

The principles that motivate the pyramidal partitioning scheme derive from the physics of atomic interactions as they are currently understood, and do not depend on whether the modeling algorithm involves solutions to the wave equation or simple mass-spring approximations.

For the simulations in this paper (used to obtain approximations of the speed of sound in cumulene rods), the mass-spring modeling approach has been employed, since only approximate results are required. The potential energy formulas used in simulations for this paper are given in Appendix B, and are typical for modeling molecular mechanics.

How fast can information move within a molecular dynamics simulation? Information in this context refers to information that would influence the positions and velocities of atomic nuclei. Analogously, one might ask how quickly errors can propogate through a simulation.

Einstein's theory of relativity states that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light without incurring violations of causality. An event in spacetime can only be affected by other events lying within a four-dimensional cone aligned along the time axis, which has a spherical three-dimensional cross-section in space. As time proceeds backward, this sphere grows linearly at the speed of light. Similarly, the future events which can be affected by the event must all lie within a future cone, analogous to a sphere that grows outward at the speed of light from the event's location in spacetime. The diagram below illustrates light cones using two-dimensional space (space being represented by the horizontal plane and time being represented as the downward-pointing vertical axis). In the terminology of relativity, these are referred to as light cones.

The speed of light places a physical limit on the velocity at which information may propogate through a molecular dynamics simulation. In order to compute the position and velocity of all the atoms in a region from other information available in the past, we need only consider past events lying within the past light cone for the region of interest. In practice, information propogates much more slowly than the speed of light, but it is heart-warming to have a guaranteed fundamental upper bound.

A more practical upper bound is set by the mechanisms whereby atoms influence one anothers' trajectories through spacetime. Physicists and chemists have enumerated a number of forces that one atom can exert upon another. Covalent bonds involve very localized forces operating over at most a fraction of a nanometer. London dispersion forces can act over slightly longer distances. Electrostatic forces can act over greater distances yet. All these forces decrease as distances grow large.

For the practical purposes of molecular modeling, it is customary to neglect sufficiently small forces. This is done by setting a distance, called the cut-off radius, at which it is assumed that all direct interactions between one atom and another would involve negligible forces.

There are also two forms of indirect interaction. An atom may influence another distant atom at a future time by causing a chain of influences, each acting locally, but propogating outward from the first atom to eventually influence the trajectory of the second. That is, mechanical disturbances may propogate through the structure. This is simply sound, and the velocity at which such influences propogate is the speed of sound in the material.

An atom may also influence another atom at a future time, even though it is more than one cut-off radius away from it, by having a velocity that carries it toward that atom. In a nanotechnological design, it can be presumed that significant velocities acting over significant distances (as opposed to high velocities that might occur in the normal thermal vibrations of atoms) have been consciously designed. It is probably a prudent design practice to require that the intended velocities of moving mechanical parts in a design should not exceed the speed of sound in the material. For the purposes of the remainder of this paper, it will be assumed that this practice has been followed, and that the speed of sound therefore dictates the maximum velocity at which mechanical influences can propogate over long distances.

Together, the cut-off distance and the speed of sound offer a predictable upper bound on the rate at which errors may propogate through a modeling simulation. Taking this reduced upper bound as the slope of the cone walls (rather than the speed of light, as in the relativistic case), one can draw a new diagram illustrating how the future (the final conditions of the computation) is affected by the past (the initial conditions of the computation), yielding a far more feasible computation. In the actual computation, the sphere-based four-dimensional cone is replaced by a cube-based four-dimensional pyramid, as cubes can be packed efficiently.

The present proposal assumes that each processor begins with the initial conditions for a relatively large region of space, but at the end of a period of simulation time, is responsible for accurate conditions in a smaller area of expertise. The purpose of beginning with the larger set of initial conditions is so that the processor will have all the information required to arrive at the final conditions in the area of expertise without consulting other processors. The course of such a computation over a period of simulation time is illustrated above. The inverted pyramid plays a central role in the partitioning scheme presented herein, which is therefore named pyramidal partitioning.

Earlier, the possibility was mentioned that processors might need to renegotiate ownership of atoms that wander from one area of expertise into another over the course of a simulation run. In the present scheme, this is unnecessary. Each processor has all the information it needs for the entire time period being simulated, and it will determine which atoms it owns at the end of the simulation period.

Optimal pyramid size

Optimal pyramid size is a function of the cost ratio of communication to computation. At the practical limit, where computation is essentially free, the initial cube (the top "surface" of the 4D pyramid) has a linear dimension three times that of the area of expertise. Mutual updates are then localized within 3x3x3 neighborhoods.

The two variables that are easily configured are the linear dimension of the area of expertise and the duration of each simulation run. The cut-off radius rco and the error propogation velocity ve are set by the structure being modeled and, to some extent, the modeling approach. A very crude measure of the computational cost of modeling is the integral of the simulated volume over the simulation time. If the linear dimension of the area of expertise is S and the duration of the simulation is T, then this measure can be obtained by evaluating the definite integral. In MKS units, its units are m3 sec.

C = (1 / 8 ve) [(S + 2 rco + 2 ve T)4 - (S + 2 rco)4]

If computations were restricted only to the area of expertise, the expression above would reduce to S3 T. The degree to which it exceeds this quantity is a measure of the duplication of computations throughout the entire network of screensavers.

In order for this measure to accurately represent computational cost, the simulated object would need to have uniform density and structure throughout the simulated region. This will likely never be the case for an interesting design. Nevertheless, this measure is likely to be a useful heuristic. It would need to be multiplied by an empirically determined constant of proportionality, which would have MKS units of I m-3 sec-1, where I represents a unit of computation such as a computer instruction or a processor clock cycle.

For the screensaver case, where MIPs are essentially free and communication is costly, it makes sense to set S = rco + ve T, which gives 3x3x3 cube packing. Approximately 90% of the computations performed by any screensaver are duplicated, or nearly duplicated, by others, due to the overlap of initial cubical regions. Because different screensavers have access to different information, duplications will not be exact, but the divergent regions will fall outside the areas of expertise.

In general, a more detailed cost analysis will offer a better use of resources. A useful parameter for such analyses is (S + 2 rco + 2 ve T) / (S + 2 rco), the ratio of the initial cube size to the final cube size. For convenience, call this the pyramid ratio. The initial overlap between cubes will determine how much information must be exchanged at each mutual update step. Smaller pyramid ratios correspond to smaller overlaps, reducing the size of messages but increasing their frequency. As computation grows more expensive and communication becomes cheaper, lower overall costs are achieved with lower pyramid ratios because fewer computations are duplicated.

An important consideration in choosing an optimal pyramid size is the available hard disk space for the individual machines. Disk space places an upper bound on the number of atoms a machine can handle at the beginning of a run. To compute disk space requirements, assume that each atom requires position and velocity vectors, as well as a few bytes representing element, charge, and hybridization. These latter may be representable as bit fields within a single byte. Assuming vector components require 8 bytes each, this makes about 50 bytes per atom. With reasonably good compression, it may be possible to get down to 10 bytes per atom. Assuming that the average computer user is willing to dedicate 107 bytes of disk space to the simulation, each computer can model at most 106 atoms at a time. In a fairly dense material, the spatial density of atoms would be on the order of 1029 atoms per cubic meter. At this density, 106 atoms occupy a cube with a linear dimension of roughly 21 nm. This is the size of the initial computing region, (S + 2 rco + 2 ve T). Assuming 3x3x3 packing, it will be desirable to assign a value of 7 nm for S.

In the absence of ionized atoms (acting as electric monopoles), an acceptable cut-off radius is 5.4 nm (see appendix C). Setting S + 2 ve T + 2 rco = 21 nm, with rco = 5.4 nm and S = 7 nm gives ve T = 1.6 nm. In appendix E, an upper bound on ve of 4x104 m/sec is derived, giving T = 4x10-14 sec. Forty femtoseconds' worth of simulation is a very reasonable amount of work to ask individual processors to do in the time between communications.

This figure assumes 3x3x3 packing. If the rate of communication is unreasonably slow (e.g. a flurry of emails every six weeks) then the situation could be improved by reducing the pyramid ratio. Still assuming an iniitial cube size of 21 nm, it may be preferable to run a shorter simulation time, perhaps 2.5 fs, between updates, giving a linear dimension for the final area of expertise of 10 nm rather than 7 nm. Using the measure of computational cost defined above, the cost of the 40 fs computation is 2.94x10-37 m3 sec, while the cost of the 2.5 fs computation is 1.43x10-38m3 sec. The 16-fold reduction in simulated time has yielded a 20-fold reduction in workload. Over a large range of simulated times, this relationship exhibits this near-linearity.

As communication becomes less expensive, smaller T values offer the advantage of less duplication of computations. The cost of duplication can be computed by assuming that an entirely non-duplicative computation would operate for the full simulation time over only the volume (S + 2 rco)3, which works out to 2.3x10-37 m3 sec in the 40 fs simulation, and 1.43x10-38 m3 sec in the 2.5 fs simulation. Dividing costs by these numbers gives measures of the cost associated with redundant computation, 1.28 in the 40 fs case and 1.014 in the 2.5 fs case. Apparently the 40 fs case is twenty times as "wasteful" as the 2.5 fs case.

The optimal trade-off depends on the latency of communication and the difference in execution times for the different processors (which in turn depends on processor speed as well as density variations in the simulated material). It is probably worthwhile to do more complete cost analyses on a case-by-case basis.

Recursive pyramidal partitioning

It is useful to be able to subpartition each processor's task into individually computable subtasks, for two reasons. Assuming this partitioning scheme is used in a screensaver context, it must be possible to interrupt the computation at any point and return the use of the machine to the user. This must be done in no more than a few seconds at most, and the loss of work in such a case should be acceptably small. This suggests subtasks that can be completed in five or ten minutes. The second reason for subpartitioning is that, while the set of initial conditions for a machine's entire task might fit on the hard disk, it may not fit into the machine's RAM. It would then be impossible to perform the entire task as one job. Even if the entire task fit in the machine's RAM, it might inconvenience other tasks running on the machine, or cause more swapping to disk than is preferable.

The notion of pyramidal partitioning once again comes to the rescue. The large 4D pyramid can be broken into smaller overlapping 4D pyramids, whose lower surfaces again form a cubical lattice, and whose upper surfaces overlap as required to minimize dependencies between subtasks. Again, the slope of the sides of the small pyramids is the speed of sound in the material. The large pyramid is partitioned along both spatial and temporal dimensions, providing subtasks that do not unreasonably tax the machine's available memory, nor do they each run more than about ten minutes. The precise dimensions of the smaller pyramids would be determined using a similar sort of cost analysis as was applied to the large pyramids, but with different constraints reflecting the different role of the small pyramids.


At the beginning of a simulation, all machines are given initial conditions for their initial regions of computation (a cube with a linear dimension of S + 2 rco + 2 ve T in the general case, or 3 S in the 3x3x3 packing case). This information should include the list of atoms, with initial positions and velocities for each atom, as well as element and orbital hybridization. Once the machines have all computed for a time T, they engage in an update cycle where each uses the updated information from its own area of expertise to provide new initial conditions for its neighbors, the 26 machines with adjacent areas of expertise. In the general case, these updates will describe slab-shaped regions for the six side neighbors, beam-shaped regions for the twelve edge neighbors, and small cubes for the eight corner neighbors. In the case of 3x3x3 packing, these shapes each grow to the entire cubical area of expertise for that particular neighbor.

Screen saver programs have components that are highly architecture-dependent. They generally perform graphics operations at a low level, and in this case, there is a premium on efficient graphics operations to leave processor time available for modeling computations. They also need some kind of timeout on the keyboard and mouse to determine that the machine is not in use, and a graceful way to abort partially completed tasks when the machine is needed again. The primary development should be targeted at the most popular platform, which is probably an Intel-based computer running Microsoft Windows 95. The screensaver development effort should draw upon expertise in platform-specific programming.

Before the public deployment of the screen saver, the partitioning and communication algorithms can be simulated on a single machine. This is an opportunity to use debug statements and monitor simulated email traffic. The program should be thoroughly debugged before prior to deployment, as subsequent upgrades will pose significant logistical difficulties. It is particularly important to resolve any gridlock issues in simulation (situations where two or more processors are stuck, each waiting for a message from one of the others). It should be possible to resolve these issues if processors do not wait for incoming email before transmitting their own updates and notifications.

In a system employing geographically diverse machines owned and operated by different people and organizations, redundancy must play an important role if a large-scale computation is to extend over a lengthy period of time. Every area of expertise should therefore be covered by at least two desktop machines, which have email addresses for each other. Siblings are machines that are working on the same area of expertise. The use of siblings offers both fault tolerance and increased speed. When a machine finishes a computation, it notifies its siblings that it has finished and it is transmitting updates to its neighbors and the central controller. If a machine receives a sibling notification before it finishes, it should notify its siblings that it is aborting its own computation, but is still alive. On each update cycle, each machine should expect to receive from all its siblings either one of these two types of notifications. If a notification hasn't arrived by the following update cycle, the machine should assume that its would-be sender is dead, and email the central controller with this news. It should cut all ties to the presumed-dead machine. The central controller may reinstate the sibling relationship at a later date, or it may assign a new sibling. The central controller has the luxury of being able to handle complex situations on a case-by-case basis (e.g. an operator may telephone the owner of the presumed-dead machine and confirm its status) but the screensaver itself must only attempt to handle situations that can be addressed with its own limited, automated resources.

An unprotected network of busily computing screensavers will offer a tempting target to hackers. An easy attack would be simply to spoof system emails, impersonating siblings, neighbors, and the central controller. Such attacks can be prevented by the use of digital signatures. The central controller should use public-key cryptography to sign its outgoing emails. Each screensaver has a copy of the central controller's public key, which can be used to authenticate controller emails, but cannot be used to deduce the controller's private key. Each sibling-sibling or neighbor-neighbor pair should engage in a Diffie-Hellman key exchange when the pair relationship is first established. The effect of doing so is to produce a secret key known only to the paired machines. This key can be used for digital signatures of all email between the pair. New Diffie-Hellman keys are established whenever pairs rearrange, for example when a machine goes down and must be replaced. Alternatively, each machine may generate a public-private key pair when the screensaver first runs, in which case public-key digital signatures can be used throughout the system.

Software that implements this partitioning scheme will contain components that would be useful for other tasks. It would be prudent software engineering to modularize the design with an eye to reuse. Communication resources can be written as a library, as can digital signature resources, which could be linked to other computation-intensive tasks as required. Minimally, it should be easy to upgrade the molecular modeling algorithms. Force fields are often designed to specialize in different branches of chemistry, some better suited for proteins, others for crystals, and so forth.

A screensaver might not have its computational task predetermined at compile time, but instead could download it via email or network. The screensaver could recognize and trust any of a set of central controllers for whom the computer's owner had collected public keys, which the screensaver would use to verify digital signatures. The screensaver might monitor use of computing and storage resources and present the central controller with a monthly bill. One can imagine a market economy in which screensavers accept a set of preferences from their computers' owners and allocate idle computing time according to those preferences, while many "central controllers" attempt to outbid one another for computing resources. In such an economy, one could collect a small income merely by virtue of owning a computer (or a large income by owning many computers). There would be some important security issues to resolve, similar to those faced by the designers of the Java language.

Other tools

This paper has described a partitioning method that makes it practical to distribute a molecular modeling task over a wide number of geographically diverse desktop computers. Other programs have been proposed to serve this purpose in the context of a conventional network of Unix workstations, notably the work of Brunner et. al. (1994-97). The present proposal is likely to run into difficulties when confronted with electric monopoles, as the cut-off radius would grow large, necessitating pyramidal partitions that might be too large to practically fit on a workstation's hard disk (unless the workstations were dedicated strictly to this task, or the structure involved were primarily empty space). Brunner et al. employ the Distributed Parallel Multipole Tree Algorithm due to Rankin (1997), which claims to compute electrostatic interactions in linear time. This algorithm is worthy of further investigation.

Another noteworthy effort is the Condor program (Basney et. al., 1997). Like the proposed screensaver program, it uses a machine's idle CPU cycles for large computational tasks, and coordinates groups of machines. Having learned of this program shortly before this paper was due, the present author has not been able to research Condor as thoroughly as it deserves.

To make such a system useful overall, there would need to be other components that have not been addressed here. Two of these are a means for generating structures and a means for visualizing the results of simulation runs to verify that the intended behavior occurred. Structure generation is a potentially rich area of investigation; interesting structures can be fully as complex as large computer programs, and many methods for managing complexity developed in computer science may find applicability in rational structure design. Krummenacker (1993) has explored the possibility of structure generation in Common Lisp, exploiting that language's ability to manage both complexity and abstraction.

Visualization programs abound; some examples are RasMol, pdb2pov, moviemol, and VMD. It is also possible to combine the functions of structure generation and visualization into a single program (as in the present author's own effort NanoCAD, and the commercial program Molecules 3D) although this approach is unlikely to scale well to structures of more than a few thousand atoms, and it offers no opportunity to manage complexity in the computer science sense. It is useful to divide the functionalities of structure generation and visualization, connecting them by a common file format; this allows for independent innovation in both areas.

Catalogs of standardized components simplify the design work of present-day electronic and mechanical engineers. Another area that this paper has not touch upon is the compilation of structure libraries. A few libraries exist on the web already, such as the Brookhaven Protein Databank, but none are yet particularly suitable as nanotechnological parts catalogs. A parts catalog should include information for each entry such as physical size, gross physical characteristics (perhaps a crude computational model of its mechanical characteristics, along with information about charge distribution) and some form of visualization, as well as recommendations by the part's designer regarding intended uses, caveats, references to previous designs, and so forth. It is possible that eventually such parts would be reviewed, as many products are today reviewed in magazines. This would facilitate the function of a free market for nanotechnological component designs.

Appendix A: Assumed computing environment

The computing environment envisioned for this paper assumes that portions of the modeling task are performed by screensavers which communicate via email every few days. This is in contrast to some scenarios involving the distribution of computational load via Java applets.

The Java applet scheme would seem to suffer from some serious drawbacks. First, the web page from which the applet is distributed must draw substantial interest on the web over an extended period of time. It is difficult to imagine a web page with content so compelling that it would attract the hundreds or thousands of visitors necessary to make the effort worthwhile. Second, each visitor is likely to visit the web page for only a short period of time, so little computation can be expected for each visit. Third, each instantiation of the applet would need to communicate with the central host, to receive initial values and to return computed results. If there are enough applets running on the web to justify the applet approach, it seems likely that the central host's ability to communicate, to assign new tasks, and to accept and process responses would become a significant bottleneck.

Because a screen saver resides permanently on a computer, it can maintain state information on disk files and perform computations over an extended period. The limitation on a screen saver is its capacity to communicate with similar programs running elsewhere. Email can presumably be queued, and sent and received using email software already present on the computer, along with the user's own email.

It is assumed that the computational resources made available by the distribution of screensavers is essentially free. This proposal is actually rather wasteful of those resources. In the entire network of screensavers, approximately 90% of the work will be duplicated, or nearly duplicated. This duplication has been designed to minimize the need for frequent communication.

It is likely that the majority of available desktop machines would be Intel-based computers running Microsoft Windows 95. When the time came to write an actual screensaver, that would probably be the most populous platform and therefore the highest priority for implementation.

The scheme envisioned in this paper does not require substantial participation from a central host, once the initial conditions are set for a lengthy simulation run. Processors update one another by email a few times each week. These updates are also sent to the central host, or indeed to anyone interested in the simulation results.

Appendix B: Modeling molecular mechanics

The approach used here for molecular modeling simulations is similar to the MM2 modeling method described by Drexler (1992, page 44). More accurate modeling methods exist, involving the derivation of solutions to Schrodinger's wave equation to determine the position probability functions for the electrons in a structure, but these are much more computationally costly. The MM2 method gives reasonable approximations for the mechanical behavior of molecules, by assuming that the forces between atoms can be modeled as a series of non-linear springs. MM2 and similar methods have been in use by computational chemists for many years.

MM2 assigns potential energy functions to various geometric properties of a group of atoms. Generally, these potential energy functions are quadratic in the parameter in question, thereby giving spring-like behavior. Of particular interest for the simulations in this paper are the energy functions associated with covalent bond lengths, electrostatic interactions, and van der Waals forces. Van der Waals forces are generally considered, for the purposes of computational chemistry, to encompass both the attractive London dispersion force and steric repulsion due to overlap of electron clouds. The van der Waals interaction differs markedly in algebraic form from the other terms used in MM2.

For the energy associated with perturbations in bond length, Drexler gives an expression including a quadratic and cubic term, but notes that this expression is valid only close to the minimum-energy bond length. He later gives expressions for over-long bonds based on the Morse function, basically involving an exponential drop-off.

To handle bond lengths over large ranges, I have chosen an energy function which follows the quadratic-cubic form close to the bond's nominal length, and switches to a decreasing exponential some distance away. I juggled a few coefficients to get the energy to look reasonably smooth. While this may not be entirely realistic (as would be the case were I solving the Schrodinger wave equation), it is adequate for the simulations in this paper.

Assuming a covalent bond stiffness of ks and a nominal bond length of r0, I have used a bond stretching potential energy given by:

E = 0.5 ks r2 (1 - kc r) - z ks if r < rt
E = -(a ks / b) exp (-b r) otherwise

Taking the first derivative yields bond stretching force, acting in a direction to move the atoms closer to a distance of r0:

F = ks r (1 - 1.5 kc r) if r < rt
F = a ks exp (-b r) otherwise


r = r - r0

kc = 2.0x1010 m-1

rt = 1.5x10-10 m

b = 3.0x1010 m-1

a = rt (1 - 1.5 kc rt) exp (b rt)

z = (a / b) exp(-b rt) + 0.5 rt2 (1 - kc rt)

a and z depend on other values and ensure that the transition from the quadratic-cubic expression to the exponential expression will be smooth. The value for kc is supplied by Drexler (1992, page 44). b, the rate of exponential drop-off, and rt, the radius at which the switch is made from quadratic-cubic to exponential, were chosen to give a smooth energy and force graphs over a range of typical values for bond length and stiffness; this was in large measure an esthetic judgement and should not be assumed to have a significant correlation with physical reality.

Here is a plot of the energy function, using the length and stiffness for the bond between two sp-hybridized carbon atoms. The horizontal axis is marked in nanometers (10-9 meters) and the vertical axis is marked in attojoules (10-18 joules).

Force is the negative gradient of potential energy. Here, positive values represent repulsion and negative values represent attraction. The force is plotted here for the same C-sp-C-sp bond. The horizontal axis is marked in nanometers (10-9 meters) and the vertical axis is marked in micronewtons (10-6 newtons).

MM2 also supplies potential energy formulas for the angle between two covalent bonds (involving three atoms) and the dihedral angle described by three covalent bonds (involving four atoms). The simulations in this paper involve one-dimensional structures that do not require these angular energy terms, but it is important to note that like the expression relating bond length to potential energy, the effects of these terms is highly localized.

In addition to forces related to covalent bonds, MM2 uses conventional formulas for electrostatic attraction and repulsion, relegated here to appendix B. London dispersion forces and steric repulsion are usually lumped into a single energy expression, called the Lennard-Jones potential, typically of the general form r-6 - r-12.

Partitioning the modeling problem becomes simpler if the effects of forces can be made more local. A simple way to do this with the electrostatic force is to insist that all atoms be non-ionized, or electrically neutral. There are still electrostatic forces to contend with, but they are now interactions between electric dipoles instead of electric monopoles, and they are more local because they fall off more quickly. Structures in which no atoms are ionized are likely to be more stable anyway, and therefore of interest in nanotechnology.

In the absence of ionized atoms, a structure cannot be ionically bonded (as are ice and salt). All bonds must be covalent. When a covalent bond forms between atoms of differing electronegativities, the electron cloud is distributed unevenly. The electrons flock to the atom with higher electronegativity, exposing the positively charged nucleus of the atom with lower electronegativity. As a result, covalent bonds may be regarded in such cases as electric dipoles. Tables of dipole moments for covalent bonds have been compiled, and are part of the MM3 model of molecular mechanics.

Appendix C: Determination of cut-off radii

In order to determine the cut-off radius for one of the forces discussed thusfar, it is important to determine the maximum tolerable error in the sum of forces acting on any atom in the simulation. Then it is fairly easy to solve for the minimum distance over which a force would need to act in order not to exceed this error value in magnitude. Once cut-off radii have been determined for all the forces at work in simulations, the largest can be used as an overall cut-off radius for the entire simulation.

All the force contributions in a simulation will be subject to round-off and quantization errors. Frequently, the coefficients used in specifying force fields are available to only three or four significant figures. In deciding a maximum tolerable error force, it is sufficient to choose a value comfortably below the level of unavoidable round-off errors.

In a spring-mass molecular mechanics model, the most significant round-off errors will occur in connection with bond length energy terms, and of these, the greatest forces will be associated with strong covalent bonds such as the bond between a pair of sp-hybridized carbons. This bond has a stiffness of about 1500 N/m. At room temperature, two atoms bonded in this way will vibrate with an energy of about kT, or about 4x10-21 J. The amplitude of the vibrations will be approximately 2x10-12 m, with forces of approximately 3x10-9 N. Given that forces of this magnitude will occur due to random thermal vibration, it would seem that an error force of 10-13 N should be adequately prudent.

Coulomb's law states that the electrostatic force (Feynman, 1963, page 4-2) acting between monopoles is given by this formula, where Ke is 8.98755x109 N m2 C-2, q1 and q2 are the electric charges of the monopoles in coulombs, and r is the distance between the monopoles in meters:

f = Ke q1 q2 / r2

and solving for r, to yield:

rco = sqrt (Ke q2 / fco) = (3x1011 m C-1) q

If q is the charge of a single proton or electron, then rco works out to 50 nm. This is already unpleasantly large, and there is no reason q should be limited to a single charge quantum.

It is possible to do much better by imposing a constraint on nanotechnological designs (at least those simulated using this method) that they be restricted to non-ionized atoms, thereby eliminating electric monopoles. Covalent bonds between atoms of differing electronegativities still have electric dipole moments, however, and a cut-off radius must be computed for these.

For electric dipoles, things are far more promising (that is, the cut-off radius is much smaller). The formula for electrostatic attraction between dipoles is:

f = 6 Ke d1 d2 / r4

where d1 and d2 are the components of the two dipoles in the r direction. A reasonable upper bound for d is the largest likely dipole moment of a covalent bond. Covalent bonds are typically no more than 2 angstroms long, and the electric charge at each end will not exceed a proton charge, so d can be expected not to exceed about 4x10-29 C m. Again solve for r:

rco = (6 Ke d2 / fco) 1/4 = 5.4 nm

The forces associated with covalent bonds act only between pairs or small groups of atoms. They can be assumed to have a cut-off radius on the order of at most a nanometer.

The other long-range interaction of interest is the van der Waals interaction. By convention, this is actually the sum of two interactions, the attractive London dispersion force, and steric repulsion due to the overlap of electron clouds. Drexler (1992) expresses the potential energy for the van der Waals interaction as:

Vvdw = evdw [ 2.48x1015 exp (-12.5 r / rvdw) - 1.924 (r / rvdw)-6 ]

For the purpose of computing a cut-off radius, we seek worst-case values for evdw and rvdw, that is, as large as might reasonably be expected. Selecting the largest values from Drexler's table (1992, page 44) gives evdw as 3.444x10-21 J and rvdw as 4.64x10-10 m. For these values, the energy expression becomes:

Vvdw = (8.54x10-16 J) exp [(-2.69x1010 m-1) r] - (6.61x10-77 J m6) r-6

The first derivative with respect to r yields the force due to the van der Waals interaction:

Fvdw = (-2.29x10-5 N) exp [(-2.69x1010 m-1) r] + (3.97x10-76 N m7) r-7

At an r value of 10-9 m, the exponential term contributes only 4.76x110-17 N and decreases rapidly as r increases. At the same r value, the second term contributes 3.97x10-13 N, and shrinks slower than the exponential. For large r, the exponential term may be safely ignored, and again we solve for rco in terms of fco:

rco = (1.69x10-11 N1/7 m) fco-1/7 = 1.22x10-9 m

The cut-off radius for van der Waals force is comfortably smaller than the electrostatic dipolar cut-off radius of 5.4 nanometers. At that distance, the van der Waals force has diminished to 5x10-19 N and may be neglected. Overall, a cut-off radius of 5.4 nanometers is acceptable.

Appendix D: The speed of sound

Mechanical disturbances can propogate along chains of covalent bonds within a material, and this is one of the mechanisms by which errors may propogate within a simulation. The velocity of propogation for such disturbances is the speed of sound in the material. Insight into this mode of error propogation be gained by examining sound propogation in covalently bonded solids. A simple scenario for such study is the cumulene rod.

Each atom in the rod is acted upon by forces due to its bonding interactions with the atoms to its immediate left and immediate right. Let x represent distance along the rod, x represent the nominal bond length between adjacent atoms, u represent a small rightward perturbation in the positions of atoms, m represent the mass of an atom, and K represent the bond stiffness between adjacent atoms. u can be considered a function of x and t (time). Considering only the quadratic term in the expression for bond length energy, the force acting upon an atom is given by:

m 2u/t2 = K [(u(x+x) - u(x)) - (u(x) - u(x-x))]

The righthand side of this equation resembles the form of a second spatial derivative, so with reasonable accuracy, the equation can be rewritten:

2u/t2 = (K x2 / m) 2u/x2

Equations of this form are called wave equations [Hildebrand, page 399, equation 64]. Their solutions are of the form:

u(x,t) = f(x - ct) + g(x + ct)

where c = x sqrt(K/M), the error propogation velocity, and f and g represent error signals respectively moving rightward and leftward along the x axis. This is consistent with the common expression given for the speed of sound in a solid material, the square root of the radius of Young's modulus divided by density.

For cumulene,

x = 1.21x10-10 m
K = 1525 N/m
m = 2.007x10
-26 kg

giving an expected propogation velocity of 3.33x104 m/sec. In my simulations, I saw a speed closer to 3.98x104 m/sec. I attribute the difference to the fact that my expression for the covalent bond energy is not a simple quadratic as assumed here. The expression I am using is explained in Appendix B. I believe the simulation result is probably more accurate. Given the unusually stiff bonds in cumulene, and the fact that they are all aligned, it is probable that a value of 4x104 m/sec can be used as a reasonable upper bound on the speed of sound in any structure of interest, and this value has been used in this capacity elsewhere in this paper.

Another way to express the result derived above would be to say that each bond in the cumulene rod incurs a propogation delay of 2.85x10-15 seconds, the bond length divided by the propogation velocity. If each bond is taken to represent a fixed propogation delay, then more complex structures such as diamondoid can be analyzed by summing the propogation delays over the shortest path of bonds connecting two distant points. It is worth noting that the resulting velocity need not be anisotropic, that is, the speed of sound may vary in different directions through the material.

The speed of sound may also be determined from simulation results.

In order to model sound propogation, I have chosen to use a cumulene rod, a covalently-bonded column of sp-hybridized carbons. The cumulene rod has two desirable properties for such modeling. Because it is essentially one-dimensional (and because I am looking for an approximate answer, not an exact one), the dynamic simulation can itself be done in only one dimension. This eases the computational burden, simplifies the software involved, and allows for straightforward presentation of results on two-dimensional paper. Secondly, it is more densely bonded than most structures of interest, and therefore provides a worst-case scenario for error propogation due to chained covalent bonds.

The bond between two sp-hybridized carbons has a stiffness of 1525 newtons per meter and a default distance of 1.21 angstroms. It is easy therefore to set up a row of sp carbons bonded at rest, and see what happens when they are struck by another sp carbon striking them and bonding to the end. The result is similar to the behavior of the popular "executive toy" that consists of a row of metal balls suspended by strings: the momentum is transferred down the row, and finally reaches the last atom, which separates from the rest and flies off with approximately the same velocity with which the first atom struck the row. In the plot below, the horizontal axis is marked in femtoseconds (10-15 seconds) and the vertical axis is marked in nanometers (10-9 meters).

A particularly pretty feature of this plot, typical of phenomena described by wave equations, is a subtly visible reflected wave propogating back along the rod.

As expected from the result derived in appendix D, the propogation velocity is independent of the initial velocity of the first atom, depending only on the mass of each atom, and the length and stiffness of the bond.

Appendix E: Application to conventional computer networks

This partitioning scheme arose in the context of geographically diverse screen savers communicating by email, but the same fundamental approach could be applied to more traditional computer networks. The present approach reduces communication bandwidth at the expense of duplicated computations. On networks where communication is at a premium but computation is relatively abundant, the same idea can be applied with TCP/IP packets instead of email. In fact, the source code for implementing this approach should be quite similar to the simulation code used in developing and debugging the screen saver.

Because this is an approach for scaling a simulation, rather than a simulation approach per se, it should be applicable with any currently used modeling software. This is good news for those who have been using modeling software on one machine, or a few, but haven't seen how to scale it effectively to much larger networks. Because the communications discussed here are sparse and easily characterized, pyramidal partitioning should make it possible to scale modeling runs almost without bound, with little new investment in software development.