Science Is A Game Where Being The Best Really Matters

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Thomas ZachariaWe at the University of Tennessee know a thing or two about being the very best at our game. Our football team has been consistently among the very best in the country. Our women’s basketball program has been a regular at the top. On February 23, our men’s basketball team, for the first time, was ranked the best in the country. I am certain that the impact is transformational. It elevates the game; it helps recruit the best talent; it enhances our reputation; it brings pride to our community. So it is with science! Being the best really matters to our economic and societal future.

Today, scientists and engineers and dignitaries will come to East Tennessee to celebrate the decision by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to award $65 million, the largest grant ever to UT, to build a new supercomputer at the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) campus. This new machine, named Kraken, which is the anchor facility for the National Institute for Computational Sciences, places UT among a handful of elite academic institutions in the nation with such a capability (University of California, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Texas, University of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University).

Within a year, UT will field the nation’s most powerful academic supercomputer, capable of nearly 1,000 trillion computations per second. The system will be part of the NSF-supported TeraGrid, a national network of supercomputers that is the world’s largest and most comprehensive cyberinfrastructure for open scientific research. TeraGrid currently supports more than 1,000 projects and more than 4,000 researchers across the United States. I believe the impact of this new supercomputer on UT and on Tennessee will be transformational. It will attract some of the best scientists and engineers to this region; in fact, it already has.

The advance in computational science is among the most exciting developments in science and technology in the world today. With the massive power of these new supercomputers, together with world-leading experimental capabilities at UT and ORNL, we are in a position to advance the frontiers of science. We are able to study complex phenomena from the human genome to advanced materials to our global climate.

Why does this matter to Tennesseans? With supercomputing, we expect to advance the field of pharmacogenomics, to allow drugs to be tailored to an individual’s genetic makeup. We can envisage a future in which doctors using such computing capability can completely characterize the genetic makeup of a patient to predict the onset of debilitating diseases years before any symptoms appear, and help the patient with preventive care. With new scientific insights, we can imagine altering individual cells-which could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, and Parkinson’s. We are already using our supercomputers to study enzymes that efficiently produce bio-fuels from switch grass.

Predictive climate modeling on powerful computers allows us to ask (and answer) important questions about climate change over decades and over centuries. Advanced computing directs our search for new technologies that will use hydrogen fuel cells offering the potential for zero-pollution transport. We are already using supercomputers to develop such technologies, moving toward the vision of safe, clean cities without the poor air quality and resulting health hazards caused by conventional vehicles. Our research in nanoscience-manipulating and building devices atom by atom-is amazing in its potential. Scientists are using supercomputers to study, at the nanoscale, new superconducting materials that will help us minimize energy losses in power production, transmission, and distribution and to make fusion power a reality.

We are fortunate to have a strong tradition of scientific discovery in Tennessee, perhaps best represented by the partnership between UT and ORNL. This partnership came into being during the Manhattan project, and attracted some of the best minds from all over the world to the hills of East Tennessee. Today it is poised to usher in the next scientific revolution. By any measure, our record is outstanding. The strength and creativity of our science base is a key national asset.

In fact, we are at the top of our game in several areas. With the Department of Energy’s National Center for Computational Sciences at ORNL, we now have not one but two world-leading supercomputing facilities. SNS is the world’s most powerful pulsed neutron source, as confirmed recently by the Guinness Book of World Records. Combined with nationally recognized programs at UT and ORNL and a commitment to world-class academic and economic partnerships, these new facilities position us for continued leadership.

Science, like sports, is both internationally collaborative and internationally competitive. Our capabilities are already attracting collaborators and competitors alike to East Tennessee. They will attract new high-technology industries here as well.

The NSF award to UT and the new computing center are important steps in creating a bright future for our region. Never before have we been able accurately to anticipate, analyze, and plan for complex events that have not yet occurred-from the operation of a fusion reactor running at 100 million degrees centigrade, to the changing climate of the 22nd century. Combined with the more traditional approaches of theory and experiment, scientific computation is a profound tool for insight and solution, as researchers move their problems for modeling and simulation from existing terascale systems to petascale systems later this year and onward to exascale (quintillion calculations per second) systems in the next decade.

With the advent of the new supercomputing facilities that we are celebrating this week, I believe Tennessee is one of the best places in the world to do science.

Go Vols!

Thomas Zacharia is vice-president for science and technology at UT and associate laboratory director for computing and computational sciences at ORNL.

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