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Computing’s Apollo Project?

For the last decade, the U.S. high-performance-computing community has been standing on the shoulders of giants. Many directors of centers for scientific computing say they believe the United States is at a critical decision point, where choice of projects and the amount of funding invested in new high-performance-computing architectures could affect future security and prosperity in tangible ways.

“It’s really going to take a combination of good ideas coming out of universities and government funding and good industrial engineering to address this nasty problem,” says Bell. “Building a new chip is right at the hairy edge of what a university can accomplish; then you need someone with the resources to do detailed engineering stuff like cooling and connections and so on. It’s going to take a lot of effort.”

But if it’s done right, an entirely new golden age of science could flower. One of the most striking aspects of the Earth Simulator project is its openness. Scientists are communicating despite language and geographical barriers. They are testing theories and conducting simulations that have the potential to improve our understanding of the world and benefit all of us. A few months ago, Sterling brokered a meeting between Tetsuya Sato, director of the Earth Simulator facility, and John Gyakum, a McGill University professor who is one of the world’s leading experts on the ways small weather systems such as thunderstorms affect global weather patterns. Before the Earth Simulator there had been no computer that could easily factor such small systems into large-scale climate simulations. Now there may be. “They have opened themselves to collaboration because they care above all about scientific results,” says Sterling. “And what they’re doing is important to everyone on the planet.”

So it’s not just to advance computer science that more and smarter computing is required. It’s to advance every science. “Science in the 21st century rests on three pillars,” says the Energy Department’s Decker. “As always, there’s theory and experiments. But simulation is going to be the third pillar for scientific discovery. Given the problems we’re faced with, we clearly want to be at the cutting edge with our science. If the performance of our computers is an order of magnitude less than what we know they can be even today, then we won’t be.”

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