Virtual Palaeontology: the debut!

Author: Nick Brown
Posted: 16 Sep 2013 | 12:56

This summer we were fortunate to have a student, Antoine, work on our dinosaur-racing outreach project as part of the Summer of HPC programme. Antoine did a great job in turning the demo from a simple prototype into a much more polished, usable showcase for how HPC plays a vital role in a variety of sciences. If you are a regular reader of the EPCC blog then you might have already read some posts about this application - see my initial blog post, and Antoine's progress updates here and here.

Having said this, it was still with some trepidation that on Saturday morning we arrived in Newcastle for the British Science Festival. Why was I nervous? Because this was the debut of our dinosaur racing demo, or Virtual Palaeontology as it is now known, and it would be sitting alongside our other exhibits. (You can read about our other activities at the British Science Festival in Alistair Grant's post.)

How would it work outside of the lab? Would it stand up to a full day of heavy use? Would the network connection to HECToR be good enough? And, most importantly, would the general public engage with it and get a clear idea of the importance of HPC?

When the doors opened at 10am the public started to drop by, and it wasn’t long before we had a race going between a large and smaller dinosaur. Not just kids, but adults as well enjoyed configuring their own dinosaur to see how well it would perform.

Some people thought that a smaller one would go faster, and others that a larger one would be best. Not all creatures were stable but all at least managed to run a few metres before falling over and probably 60% of dinosaurs completed the race. Throughout the day the demo was kept busy, and at times people were queuing up to see if they could create the fastest creature!

Overall we found that making a larger dinosaur was best, although not too large as the extra weight would negate the benefit of larger muscles. Some of our visitors even insisted on entering multiple dinosaurs with many different configurations into the race to discover the best approach! As a reminder of the day we also emailed each designer a certificate with an image of their dinosaur and its vital statistics such as the weight, height, top speed and time it took to complete the race.

The demo seemed to go down very well, and many of the public were interested to learn that, whilst racing dinosaurs is a fun application of HPC, the same principals can be applied to a variety of areas such as weather prediction, cancer treatment and the design of vehicles such as cars and aircraft. 

Come to the races!

EPCC will be attending a number of other outreach events this autumn. If you are interested in designing and racing your own dinosaur, then we will next be at “Bang Goes the Borders” at St. Mary’s School in Melrose on the 21st of September. Hope to see you there!


Nick Brown, EPCC

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