Anthony Doesburg: Science not a solo effort

By Anthony Doesburg

Expat Kiwi Ian Foster has the third most powerful supercomputer in the world at his disposal. Foster, a computer scientist at the University of Chicago, is inviting New Zealand researchers to make use of the machine, based at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), a United States Department of Energy facility just out of Chicago.

Foster is not without some pull. He is director of the Computation Institute, a body set up in 2000 by the university and ANL to investigate new ways of doing research using powerful computers and data networks.

It's not just a question of having new tools, but also of approach. Whereas scientists have tended to confine their research to a narrow specialisation, complex problems like climate change are being tackled by interdisciplinary teams.

Using the climate change example, Foster is helping equip climate scientists with the computational grunt to interpret large volumes of data from satellites while also providing social scientists with the tools to make predictions about the economic effects of climate change.

"My particular interest is ... how high-speed networks and distributed computing can help in these contexts. The way it helps is by linking people, allowing them to share data, software, information.

"Sometimes it's by federating computers at many different locations so that one can perform data analysis more rapidly than otherwise would be possible.

"The underlying context is this need to be able to use the latest methods to tackle the most complex problems."

The kind of work Foster leads is on the outer reaches of computing. In August, for example, the institute received US$1.5 million ($2.7 million) of National Science Foundation funding to build a system capable of manipulating petabytes of data (a petabyte is the equivalent of 1.5 million CD-ROMs).

One application of the system will be to speed up magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) processing, used in the diagnosis of brain injuries.

Although Foster has been working in the US since the late 1980s, he retains strong New Zealand connections. Last month at a conference of young scientists in Wellington, he spoke about the increasingly collaborative nature of the science world.

"There are interesting things to talk about relating to how technology is changing the nature of science - technologically, methodologically and sociologically; how people work together to attack scientific problems and the tools that they bring to bear."

Nor is it all just words. Foster is lending his expertise to computer scientists at the University of Canterbury, where he studied, and the University of Auckland. He is heartened by the creation of the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network (KAREN) linking CRIs and tertiary institutions, which provides an "exponential" lift in capability.

In a world in which scientists from different institutions, countries and continents work together, apportioning costs can be tricky. But in America's Cup yachting, New Zealand has shown itself to be natural at collaboration, Foster says.

"The concept of Team New Zealand was quite successful, bringing all the talents of the country together to build a winning boat and deliver a winning campaign. Yet on the other hand in an area like bioinformatics I see more diffuse activity and I think that's not necessarily to the advantage of the country. So that's one point.

"The second is that we need certain basic infrastructure to engage in science at an international level and I think that includes high-speed computer networks, high-speed computers, large storage systems and so forth. And the question who pays for them is a very challenging issue. You can't just give scientists pencil and paper these days and expect them to be competitive."

It's in that collaborative spirit that Foster has invited New Zealand researchers to apply for access to the ANL supercomputer, an IBM monster with 160,000 processors. It's not the fastest computer in the world but it isn't far behind the first- and second-placed machines on the supercomputer table, both of which are also IBM-made and in US Department of Energy labs.

Foster says the ANL machine has enough grunt to complete in 40 minutes a computational task that once would have taken 20 years. And it's the most powerful computer available for "open science" use.

"Anyone can apply for time on it. In fact, a New Zealand group can apply for time on it if they so wish - they may or may not get it. There have been some international groups that have."

With Foster there to put in a word for them, they must be in with a chance.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist

- NZ Herald

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