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Impossible Astronaut and Supercomputers in the Desert

By John Blyler

The premier of a science fiction favorite and the start of a supercomputing competition all take place in a landscape rich in secret labs and alien sightings.

Have you ever noticed how coincidences and connections complement one another? It’s almost a “chicken and egg” relationship in terms of which comes first. Do seemingly unrelated, coincidental bits of information come first, sparking the imagination to make connections? Or do seemingly loosely coupled connections suggest a coincidental alignment at certain points in time?

Consider the following loosely coupled sequence of events. Last Saturday was the premier episode of the new science fiction season of Dr Who. The following Monday, the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced a new supercomputing website which highlights a competition taking place in New Mexico.

The Dr Who story line dealt with strange meetings with a lake-bound astronaut and aliens cowering in tunnels (see Figure 1). This episode – “The Impossible Astronaut” – was unique because it was the first time in the series 48 year history that an episode was filmed in the US, specifically in Utah. Together, the landscapes in Utah and New Mexico help form the Great Basin Desert, which some call the Navajoan Wilderness.

Figure 1: "Impossible Astronaut" from Spring 2011 episode of BBC's Dr Who.

The Great Basin Desert shares the same mystic intonations as its neighbors; the Chihuahua, Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.

The sheer barrenness of these wastelands provides fertile ground for the imagination, from lost cities of gold and ancient petroglyphic carvings to UFO sightings. Interesting, these vast areas are also the hubs for some of the most hidden and high-tech facilities known to man, from Area-51 to secret military-university R&D operations stretching throughout all of these deserts.

Let’s return to the seemingly coincidental supercoming event in New Mexico, located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In stark contrast to the 130F temperatures of the outside desert, the inside of the LANL is maintained at in the mid-60s. Such cave-like inside temperatures is needed to cool the monolith high performance supercomputers which owe their existence to the world of semiconductor, chip and EDA innovation (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The unusual slant to BlueGene/L's cabinets is a necessary design element to keep cooled air flowing properly around each cabinet's processors.

During this one week in April, select middle- and high- school students have the, “opportunity to work on the most powerful computers in the world…” Teams of students work throughout the year to complete science projects worthy to be run on the high-performance supercomputers.

Not surprisingly, past successful projects have come from computational problems in Astronomy, Geology, Physics, Ecology, Mathematics, Economics, Sociology, and Computer Science. The one restriction is that the problem being addressed deals with a measurable “real world” rather than imaginary challenge.

Yet, it was probably the imaginary challenge from a sci-fi show like Dr Who that originally sparked the scientific and engineering interest of these young students.

There are strange things done in the desert sun by the men (and women) that moil for gold. (My apologies to Robert Service).

Is it by random chance that the intersecting paths of coincidence and connections and of science fiction and hard science meet in the vast, seemingly barren deserts of America?

2 Responses to “Impossible Astronaut and Supercomputers in the Desert”

  1. Andrea Says:

    Good article.
    I’ve got the RS “quote” on my studio whiteboard and I get a lot of comments about it.
    “There are strange things done in the desert sun by those who moil for gold.
    The sandy trails have their lizard tails and the tumbleweeds roam bold.”

    How about the second stanza from Home on the Range ?
    “How often at night, when the heavens are bright, with the light from the glittering stars,
    have I stood there amazed and asked as I gazed, “Does their glory exceed that of ours ?”

    And I don’t think that it’s so strange that out here in the “barren” desert that we get such rich ideas. You’ve got to be very observant to appreciate the “unbarrenness” of the desert and that is what brings about a plethora of ideas. Plus I think it helps to be isolated from the craziness of the “regular” population !

  2. jblyler Says:

    Great comments, A. I’d actually forgotten the second line of our modified version of Service’s poem.

    I miss my days in the desert and at “the lake.” And, yes, it is nice to be free from the maddening crowds – at least for a little bit. :)

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