Powerful supercomputers are becoming more and more common on college campuses

supercomputers-campus-educationSupercomputers can help university researchers predict the weather, simulate the start of the universe, and understand human biology. They can help visualize data by projecting high quality images onto wall-sized screens or create life-size, immersive 3D simulations.

Even the size of the computers can be a imposing, with some filling spaces as large as a football field or an industrial warehouse.

But perhaps the most impressive advancement of today’s supercomputers is that you no longer have to be a wealthy research university to have one on campus. From computers made from Legos to computers that can beat humans in games of chess and Jeopardy!, there’s plenty to marvel at when it comes to campus supercomputers.

(Next page: 6 wonders of campus supercomputers)

1. Big computer, small college (Monmouth College)

As if to illustrate the proliferation of campus supercomputers, this tiny college has a supercomputer but only a student population of 1,300 students.

Christopher Fasano, a physics professor there, built the college’s first supercomputer in 2009 by combining dozens of old computers he bought from eBay. Each computer cost only about $200.

2. Legos and Raspberry Pi (University of Southampton)

In another Do-It-Yourself attempt at building a supercomputer, researchers and engineers at the University of Southampton created one out of some Legos and some Raspberry Pi personal computers.

The whole setup only cost about $4,000 to build, and the university posted instructions online for creating your own cheap and colorful supercomputer.

3. Always on top (Purdue University)

In 2013, Purdue University unveiled its new supercomputer Conte. It was quickly established to be the fastest university-owned supercomputer in the nation, as calculated by Top500.org. It’s about 15,000 times faster than a 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro.

While Purdue was quick to brag about the accomplishment, the feat wasn’t anything new for the university. It was the third year in a row one of their supercomputers had come in at the number one spot.

“I’m afraid our campus has become a bit blasé about having the nation’s largest campus supercomputer,” said Gerry McCartney, vice president for information technology at Purdue. “I think some people on campus have come to expect it.”

(Next page: More wonders of campus supercomputers)

4.  A speedy second (Indiana university)

Always nipping at Purdue University’s heels in the supercomputer race is its in-state rival Indiana University.

IU’s Big Red II, which is also one of the 50 fastest University-owned supercomputers in the world, can crunch a quadrillion pieces of data every second. In order for a human being to perform that many calculations, it would require the person to complete a calculation every second of every day for 31 million years.

5. Jeopardy champion (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

In 2013, IBM donated a supercomputer known as Watson to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and this fall the University of California at Berkeley will get one of its own.

But before Watson went to college, it demonstrated its artificial intelligence in other ways. In 2011, an earlier version of the supercomputer appeared on the television game show Jeopardy! — and famously beat Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

6. BBQ sauce connoisseur

Okay, so this one doesn’t have much to do with supercomputers being used on college campuses, but it was a feat too delicious not to include.

Not only can IBM’s supercomputing system Watson win Jeopardy!, it can also create an original recipe for a supposedly delicious BBQ sauce, as well as other condiments and dishes.

In fact, IBM even showed up at this year’s SXSW with a food truck for peddling Watson’s wares.


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