EPCC at the British Science Festival 2014

Author: Nick Brown
Posted: 10 Sep 2014 | 12:30

Every year the British Science Festival (BSF) visits a city in the UK and engages the public with the latest and greatest science, engineering and technology. It is a fantastic opportunity for people to get involved in science and the programme contains a wide variety of activities to ensure the festival appeals to all ages.

This was the third year that EPCC has been involved with the BSF. We travelled down to Birmingham where we held an exhibition entitled “Supercomputing: From dinosaurs to particle physics” on the Saturday, which was aimed primarily at families. We were based in the Library of Birmingham along with a number of other highly-engaging events that all aimed to introduce the public to HPC and to encourage the next generation of computational scientists.

This event was also a chance to publicise the UK national supercomputing service, ARCHER, and one of the ways we did this was to allow the public to actually use the machine.

Via our virtual palaeontology experiment, which I oversaw, visitors created and customised their own dinosaurs and then sent this configuration to ARCHER which analysed the joints, muscles and tendons. Using the simulation results, people raced their creations to see who could design the fastest, most stable creature. This proved to be a very popular activity and over two hundred dinosaurs took part in over seventy races. Afterwards the participants were emailed a certificate with a picture of their creature along with its vital statistics such as weight, height and speed. We first trialled this activity at BSF2013 but this was the first time that many improvements to this application, such as new dinosaur models done as part of the Summer of HPC programme, were used.

Another very popular activity was the coloured-ball sorting that Mario Antonioletti ran. We have used this a number of times at different events, continually evolving the props and mechanism, to illustrate that more coloured balls can be sorted in a minute by a team of people than can be done by a single person. Results for the numbers of balls sorted by one person against two people and the actual numbers of balls sorted throughout the day by 1, 2, 3 and 4 people are shown below.

There are lots of analogies that can be drawn from this activity: load balancing, use of algorithms, contention and scalability (difficult to access the box as more people are involved), although the ball sorting usually appeals most to younger age groups who are just interested in beating the highest score thus far achieved. It also links nicely to the old supercomputer motherboards that we had on show.

To give a physical and tactile view of how supercomputers solve problems faster than your average desktop, we took along a number of old HPC boards, all of which have been part of a different Edinburgh-based supercomputer. Iain Bethune explained how the hardware was used and how it compared to today's desktop and supercomputer systems.

All in all it was a very successful and busy day. We estimate that over five hundred people engaged in some way with our exhibit. The Library of Birmingham was an excellent venue and the modern building very much complemented the state-of-the-art science that was being demonstrated within it. EPCC, once again, did its little bit of magic.