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 success on the field and on the court have helped us recruit the best talent, enhance our reputation and bring pride to our community. So it is with science! Being the best really matters to our economic and societal future.

Scientists, engineers and dignitaries traveled to East Tennessee recently to celebrate the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) award of $65 million, the largest grant ever to UT, to build a new supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The 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.

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. This new supercomputer will attract top scientists and engineers to the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley. With the massive power of Kraken, together with world-leading experimental capabilities at UT and ORNL, we are in a position to advance the frontiers of science.

In fact, we are already 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 two world-leading supercomputing facilities. 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.

Why does this matter to Tennesseans? With supercomputing, we expect to be able to tailor drugs to an individual’s genetic makeup. We also have the potential to alter individual cells, which could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s.

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.

We are fortunate to have a strong tradition of scientific discovery in Tennessee and the partnership of UT and ORNL is poised to usher in the next scientific revolution. By any measure, our record is outstanding, and the strength and creativity of our science base has proved to be a key national asset.

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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