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E-Science: Massive experiments, global networks

Worldwide computer grids mean even small-timers can contribute to ‘big science.’

By Peter N. SpottsStaff Writer for the Christian Science Monitor / October 9, 2008

Supercomputers: European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) scientists work in the control center of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. The massive amount of information collected by the collider will be shared across an international computer network.

Fabrice Coffrini/AP/File


Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina is not the first name that pops up in conversations about centers of polar science.

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Tucked at the tip of a branch of Albemarle Sound, along the state’s northeast coast, the well-regarded, historically African-American university focuses largely on undergraduate education. But it’s also taking part in cutting-edge Arctic and Antarctic science as a key player in PolarGrid – a powerful, sophisticated computer network researchers use to analyze images of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and model their behavior.

It’s part of the burgeoning world of e-Science – a realm where the questions are big, cutting across once-disparate disciplines. And the answers often demand enormous amounts of number crunching through networks of interconnected computing centers at universities and laboratories around the world – a process known as grid computing.

E-Science and its computing networks – with their ability to link scientists at schools large and small to high-powered computers, large repositories of data, and the sophisticated tools to analyze information and display the results – are “leveling the playing field of opportunity” in science, says Gerry McCartney, vice president for information technology and the chief information officer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

That’s certainly the expectation with PolarGrid, notes Linda Bailey Hayden, who heads Elizabeth City State’s Center of Excellence for Remote Sensing Education and Science. She is one of the lead researchers in the PolarGrid team. The group, led by University of Indiana computer scientist Geoffrey Fox, also includes researchers from the University of Kansas, Ohio State University, and Pennsylvania State University.

A key PolarGrid objective is to provide scientists in the field with “real-time” access to the wider grid network so they can review ice-sheet images, model ice-sheet activity, and use the information to adjust their field experiments to changing conditions while the researchers are still on the ice.

Building on PolarGrid as an educational tool, Dr. Hayden says, she and her colleagues are proposing that the university offer a master’s degree in computer science and a PhD in environmental remote sensing, broadening access and exposure to top-flight science for what the team has termed “traditionally underserved groups.”

On a global scale, one of the leading examples for e-Science’s potential to draw on the talents of scientists outside the usual cast of major research institutions is the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, CERN.

Last week, CERN formally launched the grid network it will use to analyze the data from the laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider, an enormous particle accelerator expected to begin full operation next year. The collider is expected to generate 15 million gigabytes of data each year – roughly the capacity of 125,000 iPods.