What is Advanced Scientific Computing?

Just as astronomy is not about telescopes, computational science is not solely about computers.

Telescopes are tools astronomers utilize to discover and investigate new concepts. Similarly, high-performance computers are tools scientists from a wide range of fields use to discover and investigate new concepts in physics, biology, chemistry and other subjects. This growing computational science discipline provides new ways to see things that haven’t been seen before and to see known things from new perspectives. It is not computer science – the study and development of computers and software – but the application of computers for science.

Computational scientists create mathematical models and simulations of physical, biological and chemical phenomena and systems, which allow them to better understand these subjects and predict their behavior. Such research has made computational science a third pillar of science, along with theory and experimentation.

Some of the research computational science has enabled includes:

  • Simulating the initial phase of a supernova – the thermonuclear explosion of a star.
  • Modeling the functions of molecular motors – sub-microscopic protein machines that perform essential tasks in living cells.
  • Simulating the function of a microbe that produces hydrogen from light energy.
  • Creating models to predict the flow of contaminants in groundwater.

The high-performance computers that make computational science most effective are a new class of complex scientific instruments. To use them well, three disparate elements must be brought together:

  • Hardware – The electronics and systems that typically are the focus of computer engineering and computer science.
  • Software – The algorithms – mathematical recipes – applied mathematicians develop that let computers solve problems.
  • The sciences, driven by researchers who ask the questions and investigate the problems these powerful instruments probe.

Computational science is the intellectual framework that unites these elements. That’s why most computational science research involves groups of investigators drawn from these areas. The Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research has been a leader in developing the emerging field of computational science and its practitioners.