Campus Currents

Fun and Games
An unusual genesis for a supercomputer

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Jimmy Raeder doesn't have one Sony PlayStation 3 at work—he has 40. With their sophisticated graphics, video games are great at simulating entire worlds, like the seamy cities in Grand Theft Auto IV. But the UNH physicist uses his 40 video-game consoles to simulate something out of this world—the "space weather" that creates the dancing light displays known as the Aurora and sometimes wreaks havoc on data communications.

Both types of simulation, one graphical, the other mathematical, require powerful computer chips. And although Raeder's two teenage children consider it video game "abuse," more and more scientists are harnessing the computer chips developed by the gaming industry into powerful supercomputers for use in government, industry and research. In fact, the fastest computer in the world, which was recently delivered to Los Alamos National Laboratory by 21 tractor trailer trucks, will use the same technology to perform virtual testing of nuclear weapons.

The new supercomputer built by Raeder and other researchers at the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space can theoretically perform up to 8 trillion operations per second. It has been dubbed Meerkat after the small African critter that lives and hunts in groups of about 20 to 40. At a cost of a mere $24,000, Meerkat is just as fast as the four-ton supercomputer UNH purchased with grant money three years ago for $750,000. Thirty years ago, the first supercomputer was the size of a Mini Cooper and cost about $8 million; these days scientists can shop for supercomputer components at a toy store.

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