Supercomputing at the Manchester Science Festival

Author: Mario Antonioletti
Posted: 4 Nov 2013 | 13:30

The weekend of the 26th of October saw Eilidh, Fiona and myself attend the Manchester Science Festival (MSF)  at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI).

We were running our "Supercomputing and You!" set of exhibits, which explain what modern supercomputers are, what makes them fast and how they are used. Our booth was inside the world's first railway platform - a nice contrast to the technology we were trying to demonstrate. A replica of an early steam train, Robert Stephenson's 1830 Planet, ran on the track just outside our venue, giving happy punters an experience of what it was like to ride on an early steam train. We, in turn, tried to give our visitors an experience of what supercomputers are all about.

Attending the MSF meant making a long journey with our exhibits, and so we were at this festival for two days rather than the usual one. The MSF organisers provided us with two volunteers for each of the days to encourage visitors to come in our direction (we were located at one of the extremities of the museum). They also helped to take pictures on our behalf and even got involved in running some of the exhibits, which proved to be very useful.

Fiona asked visitors to sort a set of coloured balls to demonstrate how parallelism can be used to solve a task more quickly:

This shows quite nicely how parallelism can speed-up problem solving. Building on this analogy, I did a show-and-tell using different motherboards from old supercomputers to explain how multiple processors can work together to solve a problem more quickly, just as the coloured balls were sorted faster when people worked together.

Eilidh then ran our very popular dinosaur-racing demo. Visitors can configure the body size, and upper and lower leg lengths of an Argentinosaurus, it is then named and placed on a racing track. When enough dinosaurs have been created, they are raced against each other. Normally we would calculate the gait that would result from each model configuration on a supercomputer (HECToR in this case), but as we were not networked we had to operate the system on a 4-core laptop. The tag line being that if it ran on a supercomputer it would go even faster!!

A rolling presentation illustrated the various types of problems that supercomputers are being used to solve.
Overall, this event went well. Despite our isolated location, we had about 450 visitors on the first day and about 310 on the second day. People seemed to enjoy the event as did we, and we would like to thank the MSF and MOSI people as well as the volunteers who helped to make our event a success.



I was one of those volunteers! You are very welcome, I think I spy a photo or two from me!

Thank you for your help on the day Alison.