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Communications of the ACM

ACM TechNews

Advances in Computational Research Transform Scientific Process and Discovery

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A supercomputer simulation of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Prototype simulation of dynamics of Antarctic ice sheet on the new Stampede supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Credit: Tobin Isaac/Georg Stadler, Institute for Computational Science & Engineering (ICES); Omar Ghattas, ICES, Jackson School of Geosciences, and Department of Mechanical Engineering; The University of Texas at Austin

Supercomputers supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) are enabling unprecedented scientific discoveries in a variety of fields.

"Science is conducted in a number of ways, including traditional pen and paper, deep thinking, theoretical studies, and observational work--and then there is the computational side of things," says Michael Wiltberger, who studies space weather at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). "Scientists use these computers to look at a set of equations they can't solve with a piece of paper, or a laptop."

NSF has provided more than $200 million in acquisition and deployment funding for three supercomputers, and plans to spend another $200 million in operational costs. The NSF-funded supercomputers will offer unprecedented computational capabilities with high speed, storage capacity, and the ability to produce high-resolution simulations. For example, the NSF-funded Blue Waters computer enabled researchers to describe the protein shell and behavior of the HIV genome in great detail, utilizing a simulation of more than 60 million atoms.

Supercomputers offer high-resolution simulations with extremely rapid calculations that factor in established data as well as uncertainties, improving scientists' view of possible scenarios. For example, the Southern California Earthquake Center is using its supercomputer to develop an updated framework for comparing earthquake probabilities.

From National Science Foundation
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