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How science and computing became best friends

Speed read
  • China gaining global dominance in supercomputing power
  • Smart cities require technology and citizen contributions
  • Largest ever radio telescope will search the skies for origins of the universe

Computing is now essential to scientific discovery like never before. ~Bernd Mohr, SC17 general chair

From biophysicists chasing the origins of cancer to physicists investigating dark matter and engineers improving the cost-efficiency of wind energy, high-performance computing (HPC) is central to every scientific endeavor.

A whirlwind tour of SC17. Smart cities, the Square Kilometer Array telescope, and the women of HPC. Computing is connecting science to society like never before.

Researchers now have no choice but to grapple with data and computation in order to push the boundaries of their fields and make new breakthroughs.

Who’s the fastest of them all?

With all that data to crunch, speed does matter. Which is why it’s significant that in the most recent release of the bi-annual Top 500 list, China has overtaken the US in the total number of ranked supercomputing systems.

China’s Sunway TaihuLight has held the number one position since June 2016. The number two spot is also claimed by China’s 33.9 petaflop Tianhe-2 — down from its time at #1, which it held for three consecutive years. With each of these leaps forward, China demonstrates its commitment to leading the world in high-tech achievements.

<strong>China takes the lead.</strong> SC17 Chair Bernd Mohr introduces the November 2017 Top500 list supercomputer rankings.

Despite coming in second place in aggregate performance, the US has not held the number one spot since November 2012. The fastest US supercomputer is currently Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Titan, at #5. But that might change when ORNL’s new Summit debuts next year, with more than five times Titan’s power.

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Does your city know more than a fifth grader?

Right now, more than fifty percent of the world’s population live in cities. By 2030, one in every three people will live in a city of at least half a million inhabitants. How will so many people live so closely in harmony? Smart cities may be the answer.

In Monday night’s plenary, Pete Beckman of Argonne National Laboratory, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Debra Lam, and Michael Mattmiller, chief technology officer for Seattle, discussed the role technology might play — from traffic control to trash pickup and emergency services — in managing the cities of the future.

The big takeaway: City tech only works with buy-in from citizens. From privacy concerns to vandalism and increased inequality, the human angle must always be front and center. Since cultural attitudes to integrated urban technology vary by country and region, a truly smart city of the future will be a combination of government, corporate, and grassroots efforts.

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The largest radio telescope ever built

We know that our universe began with a Big Bang, but what happened next? Answering that question is the aim of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a groundbreaking radio telescope that will be 50 times more sensitive and hundreds of times faster than any other radio instrument currently in existence.

<strong>A new view of the heavens.</strong> The largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built will revolutionize our understanding of the universe. Courtesy SKA <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/'>(CC BY 3.0)</a>

Located in South Africa and Australia where the view of the Milky Way is clearest and radio interference is lowest, the SKA will capture the highest resolution images in all astronomy and investigate dark matter and dark energy, and search for extraterrestrial life.

But the world’s biggest telescope requires some of the world’s fastest computers. University of Cambridge astrophysicist and SKA scientist Rosie Bolton has taken on the challenge of designing the HPC systems that will be able to process 160 terabytes of raw data per second and route that data to thousands of scientists around the world.

Construction begins in 2018, with completion anticipated in 2020.

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From the streets beneath our feet to the galaxies overhead, high-performance computing is integral to understanding our world. It helps us explain the past, plan for the future, and improve the present.

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