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Originally appeared in May 31, 2004
Knoxville News-Sentinel

Ross Toedte in the Exploratorium
Ross Toedte explains the computer simulation of a core-collapse supernovae—the death act of amassive star —on a large screen in ORNL's Science Exploratorium.

Through the Eyes of a Supercomputer

Researchers can view simulations in unique Science Exploratorium at Oak Ridge National Laboratory By FRANK MUNGER

May 31, 2004 It's hard for many of us to comprehend how computers work, especially those extraordinary machines now capable of trillions of calculations per second. Most of us haven't seen an algorithm since our last, cowering attempt at classroom mathematics and - for all we know - vector architecture is the topic of an upcoming feature in House Beautiful magazine. But even us baffled souls can appreciate the Science Exploratorium, one of the really cool features in Oak Ridge National Laboratory's new Center for Computational Sciences. That's where Oak Ridge scientists gather to look at visualized representations of problem-solving that takes place in the lab's supercomputers - such as the Cray X1 and the IBM Cheetah. The high-tech theater is eye-catching to say the least. "This is a one-of-a-kind facility in the open scientific world," said Thomas Zacharia, an associate director at ORNL who oversees the scientific computing enterprise. Ross Toedte of the lab's visualization task group said, "This allows scientists to come in with their group of collaborators to look at scientific simulation results and to be able to discuss what they're seeing." By looking at the display of results, researchers can alter computer codes to make the simulations better. This ultimately improves the scientific understanding of such complex problems as global climate change. Scientists view these computer simulations on a wall-size screen that's 30 feet by 8 feet, comprised of three panes of 3/8 inch-thick glass. Each of those panes weighs about 400 pounds. The back-lit computer screen is fed by 27 projectors, and the fidelity of images is pretty amazing. "People come here and think this would be a good medium for movies and parties and stuff, but the problem is that the resolution on this is much, much higher than anything else out there," Zacharia said. "A typical 35 mm project is on the order of 2 million pixels or something like that. This is 35 million pixels." Toedte said, "The components are a very high-performance network and very high-volume storage environment. We need to have fast connectivity from the storage environment." After the lab's supercomputers complete their calculations, the massive data load is moved into a storage center and later transferred to the Exploratorium's server nodes. At the present time, there is a lag time in these transfers, so the simulations are static, essentially canned. In the future, however, it's anticipated that scientists will be viewing the results of computer modeling almost in real time. "Ideally, what we are trying to achieve is to be directly, interactively connected to the computer so that while the computers are still running we can look at the data and understand whether the data is showing the right trends and understand phenomena that you otherwise could not," Zacharia said. Toedte said the plan is to bring together an entire research team, with experts from different scientific disciplines, to view the computer results. "We want scientists to be able to interact with their data and change the variables on the fly, change the color mapping," he said. ORNL recently was chosen by the federal government to build the world's fastest computer and take the national lead in high-end computing for science. Zacharia said the Science Exploratorium is a part of that effort. "This is another example of how we're scaling up the computing that we do here," he said. "You could say this is the fusion of instrumentation and expertise. It's part of the discovery process. We could have called it a Discoverarium, I suppose, but we chose the Exploratorium." Besides Toedte, other members of the lab's visualization task group are George Fann, Jim Kohl, Stewart Dickson and Jamison Daniel.

Senior writer Frank Munger may be reached at 865-342-6329 or munger@knews.com.

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