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E-science is the start of something very big

October 19, 2000

The world's largest experiment could create new opportunities for Scots companies and universities

 

IN A FEW WEEKS TIME, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his autumn statement and some of the shape of what he will say is beginning to emerge from the Treasury mists. It now looks clear, for example, that there will be no concessions on the National Insurance liabilities incurred when employees of fast growing technology companies cash in their stock options. A high profile campaign has been run by indigenous UK companies such as Autonomy, and by international players such as Cisco, but all to no avail – the Chancellor seems deaf to their protests. No doubt he is more concerned about what will happen if what he announces does not appeal to the fuel tax protesters.

 

There is, however, one strategic area where it is expected that Gordon Brown will announce a significant new investment. Look out for a reference to what he will call ‘e-science’ and an announcement of new money of around £100 million.

 

So what is this e-science all about, and what is its relevance to Scotland? To answer this question we need to go back ten years to the CERN Laboratory in Geneva.

 

CERN is the research centre for particle physics which was set up initially by the major European countries. This kind of scientific research is so expensive that many countries pooling their resources can only afford it. The UK’s research into particle physics is managed by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and much of its spending finds its way to experiments at CERN.

 

Thousands of researchers, from dozens of countries, work at CERN and in 1990 one of those, an Englishman called Tim Berners-Lee, developed a new way of sharing information which he called the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web has since changed the world – no other technology has ever taken off quite so quickly – and it lies at the core of almost all the commercial and social development of the Internet which has happened since. Unfortunately, although the World Wide Web was a European invention, it has been US companies, such as Microsoft and AOL that have reaped the benefits. The e-science initiative is an attempt to ensure that this does not happen again. This time, the Europeans should be ready to take up the challenge.

 

The main experiments at CERN are undertaken in a circular tunnel, 17 kilometres in diameter, which is buried under the Swiss-French border. Particles of atomic material are accelerated around the tunnel and made to collide with each other, throwing off fundamental particles which may confirm the predictions of theoretical physicists.

 

These experiments are now about to step up a gear. The current equipment is shortly to be dismantled and will be replaced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC); an experiment designed to find a fundamental particle first predicted by Peter Higgs, then a professor at the University of Edinburgh. The Higgs particle, if it exists, would unite mass and gravity with the other fundamental forces of physics and its confirmation would almost certainly lead to a Nobel Prize for Professor Higgs. Physicists are very excited about this prospect – if confirmed it would fill huge gaps in their current understanding of the universe and the implications would be incalculable. Everyone agrees on the importance of this experiment – even the Americans and Japanese have scaled back rival projects and have joined CERN to help undertake this work.

 

But there is a problem. The LHC when it is switched on in 2005 will be the world’s most complex machine and while it is running it will create massive quantities of data. In fact, the information generated by the LHC experiments at any time will be larger than the telephony and data traffic of the entire world – equivalent to a pile of CD-ROMs 30 miles high created every second!

 

This kind of information load creates massive processing problems; it’s a bit like trying to fill a thimble from a fire hose with exactly the few drops of water that you intend to capture. The solution is going to be to distribute this information, over high-capacity networks, to a ‘grid’ of computers located all over the world.  The term ‘grid’ is used because the computing power will be delivered just like the electricity grid – with load sharing between many different centres. A physics researcher using this grid, perhaps based at St Andrews or Glasgow, would be able to simultaneously tap into computer power and data held at many locations around the world, from Honolulu round to Tokyo. It may be that the University of Edinburgh, with its history of successfully operating a large parallel processing centre, will host the main UK grid centre.

 

This scale of computing may be required by particle physicists first, but is likely to represent the kind of massively distributed computing that we will all use by the end of the decade. Just as happened with the World Wide Web, where CERN and the physicists lead, the wider community is likely to follow. So the e-science initiative is the start of something very big indeed.

 

Let’s hope that, this time, Scottish and other European companies and Universities will seize the opportunities provided by these developments, and we won’t end up buying all the solutions from the Americans once again.

 

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