Not your average computer

By Rachel Premack, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 1, 2013

There’s a computer on North Campus that’s about 10,000 times more powerful than a MacBook.

University researchers can use it to simulate infectious disease outbreaks and investigate problems in nuclear reactors. It takes an hour to assess data that would require a month for a typical computer.

This supercomputer could have implications beyond its location in an engineering research center — it’s the nucleus of the recently established Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering.

MICDE intends to bring together fields that use computational simulation in their research, said Eric Michielssen, chemical engineering professor and MICDE director. The institute is affiliated with 40 faculty from the College of Engineering and School of Information, both sponsors of MICDE.

Michielssen said a multidisciplinary atmosphere is ideal for innovation, which will be augmented by MICDE’s seminars and courses.

“A number of ideas are actually generated by people just interacting in an unorganized fashion,” he said. “Ideas never get generated by people sitting around a table looking for new ideas. People have to interact with each other in seminars, in classrooms and so on for new ideas to naturally emerge.”

The institute is offering a new graduate certificate in computational discovery and engineering. Through MICDE, Michielssen said, students can enjoy the same intellectual variety as their professors, because graduate students from all science, technology, engineering and math fields will take courses together.

“My students take courses with students who are much like them: other electrical engineers,” he said. “But put these same students in the room with a physics or math or biology student and automatically new ideas just emerge.”

Thomas Finholt, Information School professor and dean of academic affairs, said high-powered computers were essential to uncovering new insights in the field of information. Search engines use computer simulation to modify and update their product.

“You can’t release the prototype search engine into the wild and hope people use it,” Finholt said. “You need to simulate the behavior ... and make modifications in the simulated world and that will say what you want to release.”

Even the humanities and social sciences can benefit from computational research, he said. High-powered computers can scan the entire body of Shakespearean works for similar passages, giving historians a better idea whether or not the plays had different authors.

Such endeavors may be possible as MICDE expands to LSA. Michielssen said the institute aims to add 40 professors from LSA and an additional 40 from the College of Engineering and the Information School. The math, biology, chemistry, physics and earth sciences departments currently are highly involved in computational research.

Computational simulation allows exploration of impossible experiments. A meteorologist can model what occurs inside a tornado through this technology, while such analysis is impossible in real life.

High-powered computers also lessen the cost of typically expensive experiments. Aerospace Engineering Prof. Iain Boyd said aerodynamic researchers would have had to build models of rockets and put them in a wind tunnel 30 years ago — a feat now made possible by computer modeling.

“There’s a small subset of physical phenomena going on you can look at in an experiment,” Boyd said. “You can calculate everything and it will be faster and it will be cheaper. It’s changing and it’s changing strongly toward more computations.”