Across the Board
For years, BU has been at the forefront of high-performance computing—installing one of the first massively parallel supercomputers in American higher education in 1988 and, more recently, a Blue Gene supercomputer capable of producing enough calculations in one second to fill a cash register tape 18 million miles long. Currently, BU researchers are looking beyond the “number crunching” capability of computers to sophisticated modeling and computational processes.
The Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, which opened in September 2011, will not only propel discovery and innovation through the use of state-of-the-art computational approaches, but also will catalyze advances in the science of computing by taking inspiration from challenges faced, and overcome, by a multitude of disciplines, says founding director Azer Bestavros, a professor of computer science.
The institute’s affiliated faculty will collaborate on research and educational initiatives targeting four broad application-based “clusters”: biology and medicine; physical science and engineering; social and management sciences; and the arts, communication, and education.
“In today’s environment of pervasive data acquisition and ubiquitous communication, computing has become an indispensable ‘third leg’ of discovery, along with theory and experimentation,” Bestavros says. “Computational thinking and methods provide the critical spark that drives innovation across virtually all areas of intellectual endeavor.”
As a hub for interdisciplinary research collaborations, he continues, the institute is well poised to initiate projects aimed at developing new computing models, methods, tools, and artifacts.
Trustee Bahaa Hariri, the son of assassinated Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik B. Hariri—who received an honorary degree from BU in 1986 and served as a trustee from 1990 to 2003, and for whom the School of Management building is named—pledged $15 million for the project. “Supporting great research universities is an act of faith and a resilient commitment to contribute positively to the well-being of societies,” he says.
“Computing-based approaches are critical for interpreting the ever-increasing amounts of data being collected and are becoming a creative tool in all disciplines,” says Vice President and Associate Provost for Research Andrei E. Ruckenstein. A survey of projects by faculty affiliated with the new institute bears out this claim.
Jim Collins, for example, a biomedical engineer and William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, uses computational approaches to aid in the design of genetic circuits. Collins is particularly excited for the Hariri Institute because, he says, “It will expand our capabilities in synthetic and systems biology.”
Collins’s research focuses on developing nonlinear dynamical techniques and devices to improve and mimic biological function. His work in complexity science has spurred new devices to treat stroke-induced brain failure, enhanced doctors’ understanding of how human posture is warped by aging and Parkinson’s disease, and helped invent synthetic gene networks, whose many uses include fighting antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
Similarly, Professor of Astronomy Jeffrey Hughes, who also directs the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM), has employed computer calculations to make more accurate predictions of space weather events, including solar eruptions.
Because sun storms can severely disrupt or damage space- and ground-based communications systems, from GPS navigation and satellite dish TV to military satellites, CISM is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center to develop a large-scale, physics-based space weather prediction model to provide forecasters with a one-to-four-day advance warning of high-speed streams of solar plasma and Earth-directed coronal mass ejections.
For Claudio Rebbi, chair of the Physics Department and director of the Center for Computational Science, advanced computational techniques offer a way to study quantum chromodynamics, the theory of subnuclear particles. He, too, anticipates that his research—as well as computational science education at the graduate and undergraduate levels—will benefit from the Hariri Institute.
“Space-time is approximated by a lattice of points,” says Rebbi, “and the fundamental fields, defined over this lattice, are represented by an extremely large collection of numbers stored in the memory of a supercomputer. Calculating at the rate of billions of operations per second, the computer simulates the effects of quantum fluctuations of the fields. From such techniques, one can calculate fundamental observables such as particle masses or the temperature at which quarks and gluons become unbound, and evaluate matrix elements crucial for the interpretation of collider experiments.”
“Supporting great research universities is an act of faith and a resilient commitment to contribute positively to the well-being of societies.”Bahaa Hariri
According to Bestavros, the Hariri Institute will support both research projects and workshops that bring together faculty, research staff, and students, as well as visiting experts. The facility will also accommodate up to 20 researchers and provide institute affiliates with much-needed “think space,” as well as a 60-seat seminar room equipped for telecommunication.
The official institute launch included a series of workshops on the technical and societal challenges associated with cyber security and support for pilot research projects on green computing that connect with another new BU computing initiative, the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center.