EPCC at Musselburgh Grammar

Author: Mario Antonioletti
Posted: 17 Jun 2013 | 09:18

Three members of EPCC staff (Terry, myself and Alistair) went back to school on 7th June when Musselburgh Grammar near Edinburgh held a science fair for its 200 First Year students (12-13 year olds).

Our remit was to introduce these young folks to supercomputers, in particular HECToR, the UK national supercomputing service hosted here in Edinburgh, and to give them an idea of how these types of system work and the sort of research that is undertaken using them. 

Terry started by talking about supercomputing hardware, using an old Cray XT board as an example (see pic below). 

An earlier version of HECToR held 1,416 of these boards connected by a fast interconnect and the machine consumed as much electrical power as Penicuik, a town of about 16,000 inhabitants near Edinburgh. Terry's presentation covered a little about the components on the board, how they work together, how the parallelism is achieved and why the increase in speed is necessary – all the time trying to come up with analogies that would be familiar to the kids.

Alistair took over to show the benefits of parallelism. This was done by young volunteers who played the part of processors sorting coloured balls into separate boxes. A clear demonstration could be given where several people could finish the task much faster than one person. Not surprisingly this proved to be the most popular part of the demonstration, with the competitive spirit fired up and the adrenalin flowing.

 I completed the demonstration by talking about a pheromone trapped in a mouse urinary protein in a box of water. This was simulated on an 8-core laptop using  NAMD and visualised interactively using VMD. We used this at the British Science Festival 2012 (BSF12) with an invitation to “Make the mouse wee smell by pulling the pheromone out of the protein” which can be done by applying external forces to the pheromone by using VMD (which is then passed on to the NAMD simulation). 

However, unlike the BSF12 demo, we could not run it on HECToR as there was no networking available at the school. Although the simulation ran OK, it was slightly clunky compared to what could be achieved with HECToR. Nevertheless the kids got an impression of what types of simulation might be run, though they were less impressed by our stated application for this type of research – to make perfumes last longer (after a mouse pees, the protein collapses slowly, thus releasing the volatile pheromone molecules gradually and making the smell persist).

The Musselburgh event was busy - we think about 100 kids saw our demos. We hope that we showed them that science is interesting and that they too could do this sort of thing should they choose to undertake such a career path.

We would like to thank Cray for the loan of the XT board for this event and Dr Charles Laughton from the University of Nottingham for providing the data for the NAMD simulation.


Mario Antonioletti, EPCC