You might imagine science experiments as taking place in a lab with test tubes and beakers. Although that’s sometimes the case, these days a lot of scientists use computers to run their experiments and analyse their results. And not just any old computer – many researchers actually use supercomputers.

What makes a supercomputer SUPER?

Supercomputers are scientific research machines. They are made up of thousands of separate computers, all wired together by specialised fibre-optic cables. When individual computers are set up like this, they can communicate among themselves at high speed, and share the workload on complex projects.

The fastest supercomputers in the world are tens to hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than a standard laptop or smartphone. They can do a quadrillion calculations per second, working through huge amounts of data in a short space of time. Calculations that might take weeks or months on a desktop computer can be done in a few hours on a supercomputer.

Hot machines

One of the big issues with supercomputers is the amount of heat they produce. Because they are running 24 hours a day, the computer chips use a lot of energy and require a lot of cooling.

NCI uses fans to cool the computers, and then water to carry all the heat away. On an average day, NCI consumes enough electricity to power a whole suburb, and goes through more than 2000 litres of water per hour. Other supercomputer designs have their own ways of dealing with the heat.

Australia’s fastest facilities

Australia has two major supercomputing facilities for research: the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) in Canberra, and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth. NCI focuses on environmental science, human genomics and chemistry, while Pawsey has a focus on radio astronomy.

NCI is used by researchers from 35 universities and five national science organisations, including CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia.

Much of the work involved in designing our-next generation weather forecasting models is done at NCI. It also holds a large data collection containing the equivalent of millions of DVDs worth of satellite images, ocean models and geophysical observations. This makes the facility a crucial resource for researchers from almost every field of science.

Pushing the limits

Countries around the world are always trying to push the boundaries of supercomputing forward. The parts they use need to be replaced every four or five years just to keep up with progress. Currently, the fastest supercomputer in the world is the Sunway supercomputer in China, followed by those in the United States, Japan and Europe. Australia’s two supercomputers are around the top 100 in the world.

Research possibilities

Worldwide, supercomputers are being used for more and more scientific research every year. We all benefit from the science that gets done with these machines. Flip over to the next two pages for some examples of supercomputer research.

What can you do with a supercomputer?

Predict tomorrow’s weather

Weather forecasts help us live our lives every single day. For many people, forecasts are more than the difference between wearing a jumper or not. Airlines depend on forecasts to schedule flights, farmers use them to know when to plant and harvest crops, and they us stay safe during natural disasters.

The Bureau of Meteorology – Australia’s national weather forecasting agency – has been working with NCI and CSIRO to improve their forecasting methods. They record thousands of temperature, wind speed, rain radar and barometer measurements from across the country, and use them in computer models that can predict the weather for coming days.

The main computer model the Bureau uses is called ACCESS: the Australian Community Climate and Earth-Systems Simulator. It brings together separate atmosphere, ocean and land models to fully understand what’s happening in the atmosphere to produce our weather.

The three organizations are working together to improve the ACCESS model by shortening the time it takes to run the forecasts. Recently, they managed to reduce the running time by 30 per cent. This means that once the changes are incorporated in the next version, they will be able to fit more runs inside their schedule, or run more accurate models.

Map the stars

Astronomy research produces huge amounts of data each day: data that has to be analyzed and stored for later use. NCI is one of the places where many significant astronomy datasets are stored.

For example, a telescope in Coonabarabran, New South Wales, takes extremely detailed pictures of the Australian sky every night as part of the Skymapper project. Skymapper makes these pictures available to astronomers to use for their own research. In 2014, some of the oldest known stars in the universe were discovered using this data.

Other astronomers are trying to understand phenomena such as supernova explosions by modelling them on the supercomputer. This lets them test their understanding and compare it to observations they’ve made previously. If the models match the observations, it means the researchers are on the right track.

Satellite searches

One of the best ways of studying our environment is to use satellites to take pictures of Earth from space. Different satellites have their own instruments and cameras on board, to investigate things such as vegetation, ocean currents, geology and agriculture.

The trick with using satellite images for research is being able to get just the ones you want, for the specific region you’re interested in. The Australian Geoscience Data Cube makes it easy for researchers to find the images they’re after.

Programs running in the background can pick through the database of images and search based on whatever criteria the researcher wants. Then, the satellite images can be used for research into bushfire prevention, water management and the monitoring of coral bleaching.

In the future, science will rely more and more on these huge databases of satellite observations. In turn, supercomputers will become even more critical as a way to learn about changes in the environment and how they will affect us.

This short article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of the Double Helix Magazine, an Australian children’s science magazine.

I wrote it for work, as a new way of reaching out to young people and letting them know about a different kind of scientific research.


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