Supercomputing dinosaurs at the BSF

Author: Alistair Grant
Posted: 11 Sep 2013 | 10:13

What do dinosaurs, prime numbers, four individuals from EPCC and Cray, and the city of Newcastle have in common? Not much until the four descended on Newcastle to take part in the British Science Festival 2013 with demonstrations about virtual dinosaurs and a talk about prime numbers.

Nick explaining how the dinosaur sim works.

After some early morning travel down the east coast of the UK from Edinburgh to Newcastle, the four - Iain (the intrepid prime number man), Nick (keeper of the virtual dinosaurs), Tom (the man from Cray) and myself -  set up a room in the Discovery Museum in quick time. The Learning Room, as it was called, was next to the Museum Archives where, if you looked closely in one of the cabinets, you could see a first-generation iPad.

We had brought with us a number of pieces of hardware, from a desktop PC to a Cray XT4 blade. These pieces generated a lot of interest from the visitors who were keen to see the 'guts' of a supercomputer. Questions about them ranged from 'How different are they to the desktop?' to 'How can I buy one?'. Many people were disappointed when they realised that a supercomputer was a little out of their budget.Iain explaining the internals of a computer

Our interactive activities attracted a range of visitors, and the parallel card-sorting proved to be a lesson in cooperation for several families. Indeed in one group, the one person who made a mistake in following the algorithm was themselves a software developer, proving we all have to pay attention and all have new things to learn.

It is estimated that several hundred people visited our exhibit throughout the day, and most stayed for a considerable period of time asking good and interesting questions. Questions which ranged from 'What is HECToR used for?' to 'Why is the 'o' in HECToR little?', and the more philosophical 'When will computers replace us?'.

The big attraction of the day was the dinosaur racing. At its public debut the simulator using GaitSym proved to be very popular and having the public use it has given us a lot of ideas on how to improve it to make it even better. Thanks to Nick and his Summer of HPC student for all their work in putting it together. (See Nick's post.)

After a very long day, the British Science Festival 2013 was a success for the outreach efforts of EPCC. It showed that there is a wide audience who want to know how these high-end systems work, who uses them and for what.

Contact

Alistair Grant, EPCC