Incredible Technology: How Supercomputers Solve Giant Problems

Editor's Note: In this weekly series, LiveScience explores how technology drives scientific exploration and discovery. - See more at: http://www.livescience.com/37671-how-to-do-brain-surgery.html#sthash.NIJ821It.dpuf

Editor's Note: In this weekly series, LiveScience explores how technology drives scientific exploration and discovery.

Today's supercomputers are marvels of computational power, and they are being used to tackle some of the world's biggest scientific problems.

Current models are tens of thousands of times faster than the average desktop computer. They achieve these lightning-fast speeds via parallel processing, in which many computer processors perform computations simultaneously. Supercomputers are used for everything from forecasting weather to modeling the human brain.

What sets supercomputers apart is the size and difficulty of the tasks they can tackle and solve, said Jack Wells, director of science at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. [9 Super-Cool Uses for Supercomputers]

"Supercomputers can do supersize problems," Wells said.

Supercomputers are often built from the same components as regular computers, but they're integrated so they can work together, Wells told LiveScience.

The first supercomputers were developed in the 1960s, designed by electrical engineer Seymour Cray of Control Data Corporation (CDC). In 1964, the company released the CDC 6600, often considered to be the world's first supercomputer. Cray later formed his own company, which made the Cray-1 in 1976 and Cray-2 in 1985.

These early supercomputers had only a few processors, but by the 1990s, the United States and Japan were making ones with thousands of processors. Fujitsu's Numerical Wind Tunnel became the fastest supercomputer in 1994 with 166 processors, followed by the Hitachi SR2201, in 1996, with more than 2,000 processors. The Intel Paragon edged into the lead in 1993. As of June 2013, China's Tianhe-2 was the world's fastest supercomputer.

Supercomputer performance is measured in "flops," short for floating-point operations per second. Today's machines can achieve speeds in petaflops — quadrillions of flops.

The TOP500 is a ranking of the world's 500 most powerful supercomputers. China’s Tianhe-2 achieves 33.86 petaflops, while the Cray Titan reaches 17.59 petaflops, and IBM's Sequoia ranks third at 17.17 petaflops.

Solving supersize problems

Researchers have harnessed the number-crunching power of supercomputers to work on complex problems in fields ranging from astrophysics to neuroscience.

These computational behemoths have been used to answer questions about the creation of the universe during the Big Bang. Researchers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) simulated how the first galaxies formed, and scientists at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., simulated the birth of stars. Using computers like IBM's Roadrunner at Los Alamos National Laboratory, physicists have probed the mysteries of dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up roughly 25 percent of the mass of the universe. [101 Astronomy Images That Will Blow Your Mind]

Weather forecasting is another area that relies heavily on supercomputing. For example, forecasters used the TACC supercomputer Ranger to determine the path of Hurricane Ike in 2008, improving the five-day hurricane forecast by 15 percent. Climate scientists use supercomputers to model global climate change, a challenging task involving hundreds of variables.

Testing nuclear weapons has been banned in the United States since 1992, but supercomputer simulations ensure that the nation's nukes remain safe and functional. IBM's Sequoia supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is designed to replace testing of nuclear explosions with improved simulations.  

Increasingly, neuroscientists have turned their attention to the daunting task of modeling the human brain. The Blue Brain project at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, led by Henry Markram, aims to create a complete, virtual human brain. The project scientists are using an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer to simulate the molecular structures of real mammalian brains. In 2006, Blue Brain successfully simulated a complete column of neurons in the rat brain.

Sharing the load

The quintessential supercomputer typically consists of large datacenters filled with many machines that are physically linked together. But distributed computing could also be considered a form of supercomputing; it consists of many individual computers connected by a network (such as the Internet) that devote some portion of their processing power to a large problem.

A well-known example is the SETI@home (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at home) project, in which millions of people run a program on their computers that looks for signs of intelligent life in radio signals. Another is "Folding at home," a project to predict the 3D structure of proteins — the biological workhorses that perform vital tasks in our bodies — from the sequence of molecular chains from which they're made.

In the future, supercomputers will edge toward "exascale" capabilities — about 50 times faster than current systems, Wells said. This will require greater energy, so energy efficiency will likely become an important goal of future systems. Another trend will be integrating large amounts of data for applications like discovering new materials and biotechnologies, Wells said.

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Loading...

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • MVP on endorsement: Thanks, I’m no politician
    MVP on endorsement: Thanks, I’m no politician

    Businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan is grateful for Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s praise and presidential endorsement, but says he is not a politician. In an interview on the sidelines of the launch of the search for The Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) of the Philippines 2015 Wednesday night, Pangilinan dismissed the idea of running for president in the 2016 elections. “I’m not a politician, I’m just an ordinary business person,” he added. Santiago endorsed Pangilinan as a presidential candidate …

  • No Lenten break in operations vs lawless groups – AFP
    No Lenten break in operations vs lawless groups – AFP

    The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is not suspending its offensive against the Abu Sayyaf, New People’s Army (NPA) and other lawless groups during the Holy Week, an official said yesterday. Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, AFP public affairs office chief, said the AFP leadership is leaving it up to area and division commanders whether to raise the alert status in preparation for the Holy Week. Those deployed in areas where there are ongoing law enforcement operations against terrorist groups …

  • Probe harassment vs human rights lawyer, CA orders AFP
    Probe harassment vs human rights lawyer, CA orders AFP

    The Court of Appeals (CA) has ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to investigate a human rights lawyer’s claim of harassment, including surveillance, by several military officers. In a 22-page decision, the former Special Sixth Division of the appellate court granted the petition for writ of amparo and habeas data of Maria Catherine Dannug-Salucon. The CA ordered the AFP to identify the officers behind the surveillance and file charges against them. The CA ruling said …

  • Envoy to expats: Retire, invest in Phl
    Envoy to expats: Retire, invest in Phl

    Retire and invest in real estate in the Philippines, especially now that the country has made it to the top 10 retirement destinations in the world. This is the message being spread by the Philippine embassy in Washington, with Ambassador Jose Cuisia Jr. leading the refrain in meetings with various Filipino-American communities in the US. Cuisia recently met with Filipino communities in San Diego, California and El Paso, Texas. In his talks, Cuisia said that an affordable cost of living as …

  • PNPA spotlight falls on Ampatuan grandson
    PNPA spotlight falls on Ampatuan grandson

    The stigma of being a namesake of the principal suspect in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre did not prevent Cadet First Class Andal Ampatuan III from entering and graduating from the Philippine National Police Academy (PNPA). Ampatuan III, now with a rank of police inspector, is a grandson of former Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr. The younger Ampatuan was among the 246 graduates of the PNPA “Lakandula” Class of 2015. Ampatuan III’s mother is Bai Rebecca Ampatuan, a daughter of the …

  • Philippines says China rushing construction in disputed sea
    Philippines says China rushing construction in disputed sea

    MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines' top diplomat said Thursday that China has been rushing construction projects, including massive land reclamation, in the disputed South China Sea in hopes of forestalling any legal moves against its vast territorial claims. …

  • Aquino takes responsibility for bungled mission in Philippines, but no apology
    Aquino takes responsibility for bungled mission in Philippines, but no apology

    Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Thursday took responsibility for a bungled security operation in January that left 44 police commandos dead, but offered no public apology for the clash that has become his biggest political crisis in years. Since the secret mission, Aquino's approval and trust ratings have plunged to their lowest level in five years, and a peace process with the country's largest Muslim rebel group has stalled. "To every Filipino who has felt failure or has been hurt …

  • Marshall rolls out new headphone, speaker lines in PHL

    Established music brand Marshall is rolling out new headphone and speaker lines in the Philippine market. …

POLL

Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Loading...
Poll Choice Options