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Frontera Helps the Science That Transforms Society

Published on September 16, 2019 by Jorge Salazar

Fleming Crim, Chief Operating Officer of the National Science Foundation, in the TACC Podcast studio.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) celebrated the official launch of its newest supercomputing system, Frontera, funded by a $60 million award from the National Science Foundation. Frontera aims to help scientists with the cyberinfrastructure resources to tackle some of the biggest unknowns in science. And it's made a promising start, with an initial rank of #5 fastest supercomputer in the world and #1 fastest academic system, according to the June 2019 Top500 rankings.

Fleming Crim, the Chief Operating Officer of the National Science Foundation, gave opening remarks at the dedication event for the launch of Frontera. TACC Podcast host Jorge Salazar interviewed Crim about the NSF-funded Frontera system and the value of supercomputers for fundamental research.

The NSF has for decades made large investments in cyberinfrastructure, the online ecosystem shared by researchers, backed up by advanced computing resources, hosted in data centers, and supported by experts. Would you speak to how supercomputing resources stimulate good ideas in fundamental research?

There are really two parts to how that works. There's a set of sophisticated users who flock to any new resource and will be able to think about doing things they never could do before. These people will actually end up pushing back the frontiers, but in an area where they simply knew they needed more capacity. For example, they would say, if we only had this capability, I could calculate this thing, I could do this computation. I could analyze this data set. On the other hand, there are what I guess I would call the ‘naive' users, for the lack of a better word, but certainly not the sophisticated experts. They're going to profit, and new ideas are going to come about because something like Frontera will allow them to do things they could never do before, not solely because of its capabilities, but because of the access it will provide, in particular new software… Frontera is looking to do a lot of outreach with the idea of bringing users who can profit from sophisticated computation in. This is going to push back the Frontiers, not only in areas you automatically think of with high-powered computation, but also in areas where computation is ready to make a difference, but its users are not quite sophisticated enough yet.

TACC dedicated today its new Frontera system, with funding awarded by the National Science Foundation. What are some of the ways you see Frontera serving the nation's scientists, and non-scientists?

Tommy Minyard (R), TACC Director of Director of Advanced Computing Systems, leads a tour of the Frontera supercomputer with Fleming Crim (L).
I just commented on the way that various kinds of scientists of different levels of experience with computation are going to profit from this. But there's actually a meta-response to that question about how is this going to help everyone. I'm going to back up and comment on NSF's mission. NSF's mission is to support fundamental research broadly across all disciplines. That has tremendous consequences for everybody. First, the obvious consequence of something like Frontera is that people who want to do sophisticated computations can now do them in a way that they could never do them before, and think about addressing problems they could never address. But in fact, that benefits everyone in the nation, because fundamental science is what transforms our future. At the NSF, we think about how fundamental science pushes back the frontiers in order for us to be competitive internationally; to drive our economy to new heights; and to promote our national security. So those three things — promoting national security; economic competitiveness; and being a world leader — are the things that motivate us. Fundament research makes that happen.

The fundamental research that we fund at NSF doesn't just benefit people who are doing things like observing gravitational waves, or neutrinos, or trying to figure out dark matter and dark energy. It benefits the citizen on the street.

Let me mention a couple of examples. General Relativity is not something that Einstein did so I could get to Starbucks. But the fact is, there's General Relativity built into your GPS. Without a correction for General Relativity, Your iPhone would not know where you are.

There are many other examples. Google began as a project of the Digital Library, a project that we were funding at Stanford and many other places. And a student and a post-doc went on to create Google out of that.

There's a whole host of examples. There are some things that have been in the news lately, like detecting gravitational waves, the merger of black holes, the merger of neutron stars. Those are big ideas. Those are really inspiring ideas. And that's one of the things that benefits us as a nation, is just to do something inspirational. But to do things like make LIGO work — new laser technology, new materials — the quest for that understanding drives many advances.

I'm going to mention one more example. There were people studying phosphorescence in jellyfish, just because they wanted to know why jellyfish glowed. They discovered something called Green Fluorescent Protein. Green Fluorescent Protein is at the heart of most research in biology and is leading to new therapies and new medicine. That was a piece of curiosity-driven research, purely wanting to understand why the jellyfish glowed, that led to that transformative result for society.

Frontera helps that science to happen. And that science has real consequences for us as a nation.

Eric Lander, who leads the Broad Institute at MIT, gave a marvelous talk in 2015 at the mathematics festival. It was called The Miracle Machine. He talks about a couple of these examples I just mentioned. He has a long set of examples. He points out, again and again, fundamental research has been a miracle machine. It's produced the kinds of things that I just talked about, not because we set out to produce that thing, but because we set out to understand how the world works, and there were powerful consequences to it.

Let me mention one other example that I really like. Number theory was at one time considered one of the most esoteric aspects of mathematics. In fact, number theory is at the heart of public key/private key cryptography. All of our secure Internet transactions rest on what was once an esoteric, obscure part of mathematics.

You need certain kinds of facilities, certain technology to push back the frontiers of science and engineering. Pushing back those Frontiers transforms our society. The reason we are spending the taxpayer's dollars to support fundamental research is, it's going to transform the future.

Fleming Crim (NSF) gives opening remarks at Frontera dedication, September 3, 2019.
What's the most important thing you want the public to know about the Frontera supercomputing system?

Okay, there's a second most-important thing I want them to know. Fundamental research transforms the future. But the most important thing I want people to know is that Frontera is the beginning, not the end. It's the start of something. Already, Frontera and the people here are looking toward creating an even more powerful machine. Every powerful, new apparatus we create — be it a computer, telescope, gravitational wave observatory — opens the door to more powerful things. We learn new things, and those are the things that we go forward with. This is opening the future.

The one thing I want people to know is that you should think of this powerful new machine as a beginning.


Faith Singer-Villalobos

Communications Manager | 512-232-5771

Aaron Dubrow

Science And Technology Writer

Jorge Salazar

Technical Writer/Editor | 512-475-9411