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:

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

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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.

  • N. Korea fires missiles in anger at South-US military drills
    N. Korea fires missiles in anger at South-US military drills

    North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea and vowed "merciless" retaliation Monday as the US and South Korea kicked off joint military drills denounced by Pyongyang as recklessly confrontational. The annual exercises always trigger a surge in military tensions and warlike rhetoric on the divided peninsula, and analysts saw the North's missile tests as a prelude to a concerted campaign of sabre-rattling. "If there is a particularly sharp escalation, we could see the …

  • Couple married 67 years holds hands in final hours together
    Couple married 67 years holds hands in final hours together

    FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — After spending 67 years together as devoted husband and wife, there was no question how Floyd and Violet Hartwig would end their lives — together. …

  • Hijacked Indonesian vessel found in Davao
    Hijacked Indonesian vessel found in Davao

    An Indonesian cargo vessel that was hijacked a month ago in North Sulawesi, Indonesia has been found stuck in the waters off Mati, Davao Oriental, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported yesterday. PCG spokesperson Armand Balilo said the PCG- Southeastern Mindanao district was informed on Feb. 23 that the M/T Rehoboth was found aground off Barangay Cabuaya. Four personnel from the local PCG district office were sent to verify the report. The vessel was reportedly hijacked by …

  • Militants want US Marines pulled out of Negros
    Militants want US Marines pulled out of Negros

    The militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) is calling for the pullout of US Marines who arrived in Sagay City, Negros Occidental last Wednesday to train Special Action Force (SAF) commandos and members of the allied forces. The SAF commandos and the allied forces will secure the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) ministerial meeting in this city. Bayan-Negros secretary general Christian Tuayon said the US troops might violate the human rights of activists, especially those …

  • Military steps up offensive vs BIFF, Abu Sayyaf
    Military steps up offensive vs BIFF, Abu Sayyaf

    Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. has ordered the sustained campaign against the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) following the successive offensives against the armed groups last week. A total of 24 Abu Sayyaf bandits and two soldiers were killed in recent clashes in Sulu last week. The Joint Task Group Sulu has received information that Abu Sayyaf leader Radulan Sahiron was wounded during one of the encounters but this is …

  • 'Jihadi John' relatives under watch in Kuwait
    'Jihadi John' relatives under watch in Kuwait

    Kuwaiti authorities are closely monitoring several relatives of "Jihadi John" who live and work in the Gulf emirate where the Islamic State executioner was born, press reports said on Sunday. A number of relatives of Mohammed Emwazi, named as the militant who has beheaded at least five Western hostages, are working in Kuwait and like him hold British citizenship, Al-Qabas newspaper reported. "Security agencies have taken the necessary measures to monitor them round the clock," the paper said, …

  • Binay backs house arrest for JPE, GMA
    Binay backs house arrest for JPE, GMA

    Vice President Jejomar Binay yesterday supported proposals to put Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and former President now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo under house arrest. “Government prosecutors are opposing house arrest for… Enrile. Binay issued the statement after the 91-year-old Enrile was rushed to the Makati Medical Center on Thursday due to pneumonia. House arrest for him would be the compassionate thing to do,” he added. …

  • China subs outnumber US fleet – admiral
    China subs outnumber US fleet – admiral

    China is building some “fairly amazing submarines” and now has more diesel- and nuclear-powered vessels than the United States, a top US Navy admiral told US lawmakers on Wednesday, although he said their quality was inferior. Vice Admiral Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources, told the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee that China was also expanding the geographic areas of operation for its submarines, and their length of …


Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Poll Choice Options