By Mandy Smith
While 2001: A Space Odyssey may have given movie audiences the infamous computer, HAL, nearly 50 years, Physics Professor Dr. Mark Bouwens is about to introduce the Northeast campus to the latest in cutting-edge technology, Thorondor.
A little over a year ago, Bouwens came up with the bright idea to build a computer. But, he didn’t just want to put together an ordinary desktop; he envisioned a super computer that would rival the equipment found at larger four-year institutions.
“I wanted to try to create an opportunity for students that was at least as good as opportunities that they could get if they were at a university when they’re in their first two years,” Bouwens said. “The way it’s turned out, it’s probably going to be better.”
The new system, consisting of 10 multitasked computers being built in the physics lab by Bouwens and five of his students, will be able to do what the professor called “extraordinarily complicated calculations and simulations” that if done on a regular computer would literally take months. “We can do them on a super computer that has so much more power in a small fraction of that time,” he said.
Extraordinary is a word Bouwens uses a lot when talking about the super computer. While he admitted that some large universities may have computers that are more powerful than the one he’s creating, he said they have to share the space with hundreds of people running a vast number of programs all at the same time.
With 320 gigabytes of ram, nearly a third of a terabyte, and a 56-gigabyte network, that’s a problem Northeast students won’t have to deal with.
“We can dedicate all the resources here to a project for a group of students and run it for whatever period of time it takes and use all the resources available,” he said.
Bouwens is already planning one of the first research projects and said it is a topic that is extremely relevant in the world of physics today. While he wasn’t quite ready to reveal the plans for the new project just yet, he said if successful it would give Northeast students a chance to be academically published. Something he said would greatly benefit them when they transfer to a university.
He said it is this type of work that was behind the idea to design and build the super computer. “This was an idea really for the students,” Bouwens said. “I’m going to lead the research, but I’ll pick projects that the students can do 80 to 90 percent of the research. The students are going to do the vast majority of the work and they are going to benefit so much from that.”
Bouwens has created a whole other course called Scientific Computational Techniques designed around the system’s capabilities.
“We are going to teach advanced parallel programming, which is what you do on a super computer,” he said. “We will help students learn to write and develop programs that run fast and more efficiently. I’ll show them some of the techniques and tricks to do that.”
Northeast student Branden Hollingsworth, a computer science major, is one of the students helping build the new system. He said Bouwens’ excitement about the project was contagious and he wanted to be a part of putting together the new technology. “He talked about it everyday in class. He’s very excited about it and has me excited about it,” Hollingsworth said. “It sounds like it’s going to be a beast of a computer.”
Northeast Vice President for Advancement Dr. Jonathon McCullough, VP for Advancement at praised Bouwens for his commitment to bringing the project. “Mark has done a great job of identifying an opportunity and being willing to work many extra hours to allow this opportunity to come to fruition,” he said. “Our students will benefit because of his vision.” McCullough said two additional grant requests have been written and submitted and if either or both of them come through, the funding will go to enhance this project. Along with the physics department, Thorondor will also be used by chemistry, computer science and engineering students.
Bouwens said there is also a plan to purchase an advanced chemistry program called Spartan that chemistry students will be able to use on the new system.
The advanced software would allow Chemistry Professor Dr. Drew Murphy the ability to demonstrate the three-dimensionality of electron orbitals and allow students to create three-dimensional molecules that can be visualized. “It will add an extra layer of understanding of the interworking of the molecule and how it is put together instead of just a macro-scale laboratory picture,” Murphy said.
Bouwens is also working with Dr. Will McWhorter, NTCC computer programming professor, and Northeast Professor of Engineering Kenneth Irizarry on a variety of ways that the super computer can benefit students majoring in those areas of study also.
As Bowens and his students finish up the project and gets ready to introduce the new system to the classroom, the sky really is the limit. One of the first things he’ll be doing is simulating a galaxy to investigate the properties related to galactic dynamics and why and how the stars move. “That’s the kind of stuff I like to do; I like to push the limit and show these students how to do that, to milk every bit of power out of a computer is fun for me,” he said. “I love doing stuff nobody else can do.”