Of Particular Significance

Science Past and Future, on Diverse Continents

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 06/19/2013

Today, two articles that I found especially interesting and that I recommend to you:

China’s Tianhe-2 retakes fastest supercomputer crownA China-based supercomputer has leapfrogged rivals to be named the world’s most powerful system.

This article caught my eye because I think it highlights the degree to which China is rapidly catching up with Europe, the United States and Japan on certain technologies that matter a great deal.  China, unlike the US, which has been generally cutting its scientific spending since around 2000, is putting a tremendous amount of its money into science and engineering, aiming to surpass the world’s current technology leaders. Though they’re still making their way forward, their efforts are starting to pay off.  Since supercomputers are widely used in developing new technology (e.g., simulating novel aircraft), leadership in supercomputers, should they attain it, will have many benefits for the Chinese economy and military.  Lest you think they are merely copying what others have already done, you should make sure to read the last half of the article. Will it take another Sputnik moment to make anti-scientific politicians properly nervous about the cost of falling behind?

The second article of interest was this one (though the headline is a bit overstated…)

Roman Seawater Concrete Holds the Secret to Cutting Carbon Emissions:  Berkeley Lab scientists and their colleagues have discovered the properties that made ancient Roman concrete sustainable and durable

This great story evokes the tragic romance of knowledge lost for centuries — along the lines of the Stradivarius violins that no violin maker today can match. And it weaves several interesting strands.  First is the fact that modern concrete begins to fall apart in seawater in half a century, while the Romans managed to make a concrete that can survive seawater for two millenia.  How did they do it?  

Well, that’s the second interesting part: researchers claim to have figured it out, using one of the most modern of scientific techniques — flashes of ultraviolet or X-ray light, emitted by high-energy electrons traveling at nearly light-speed, in a particle accelerator (the Advanced Light Source). The Advanced Light Source is located at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in the hills above the university we call “Berkeley” (officially the University of California at Berkeley).

The third interesting thing: the researchers learned that the Romans’ concrete, made mainly from lime (from limestone) and volcanic ash (pulverized rock created in abundance during any energetic volcanic eruption), used less lime and was formed at much lower temperatures than modern concrete. If modern concrete were replaced (when appropriate and possible) with a similar material, its production would use much less energy. And since concrete production is a notable contributor to overall energy use, this is not a minor effect.  In short, it’s just possible that this could be one of those rare situations where everyone wins: either the Roman concrete, or, more likely, a modern/ancient hybrid, may turn out to be more durable, more fuel-efficient to produce, and perhaps cheaper than the forms of concrete we use today.  

Thank goodness! The US government is still funding some important research!  Oh.  Right.  I guess it should be mentioned that initial funding for this work came from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.  Apparently they have a lot of volcanic ash lying about…

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19 Responses

  1. When you mentioned having lost the knowledge for making a Stradivarius, I recalled reading the article linked below. Thought you might find it interesting. Research monies are monies very, very well spent even if we don’t always turn up obviously useful results. And thanks for a wonderfully entertaining and educational website.

  2. I am an engineer and wanna be physicist. This post appeared the same day I arrived in Shenzhen China. This is the second trip I’ve made here this year and my 6th overall. Every time I come here I am amazed at how far China has come (and exceeded) the US, not only in many technical aspects but how they are doing business now. I notice other people are commenting on how they are not going to worry because the US is still the leader in innovating new technologies. Well, that used to be true but now most of the major powers in the US seems to be only interested in manipulating money and monopolising every thing possible via the IP faux-property system.

    Many engineer/inventors including myself are scared to death of some new idea being the target of a patent troll. This first thing that has to be considered whenever a new idea comes to mind is will you get sued to oblivion by some predatory company that mostly exists to extort money from real innovators. From talking to my contacts in other parts of the world they are saying it is much better to target products to other than the US because of the IP situation. And this is just one of many areas where the US is shooting itself in the foot.

    As far as other business practices, in Shenzhen there are many electronic market buildings of 4 or 5 stories completely full of independent vendors selling every kind of component possible. Anyone can walk in off the street and buy 1 to thousands of a part. There is no discrimination or snobbery to the small buyer vs. the mega corp. like in the US. That is one of the reasons I travel here from my rapidly fading tech grounds in Texas where I live. Also the people here are a joy to work with. They want your business. Whether you are big or small they will go out of their way to get it and keep it. Sure there are many good people in US industry who treat customers the same way, but there seem to be many more who do not.

    I’ll just end with one more comparison and then shut up. I mentioned earlier about the technical market buildings that dot the landscape here. About ten years ago, I was working in San Jose (think silicon valley) and decided to go to as many tech market places that would let me in. All the places I went to would probably fit in two of the buildings here. Most were fairly small companies and most are now closed. Compare that to Shenzhen where 2 or 3 of these huge market buildings full of thousands of independent supplier are opening every year. It seems to me it is a lot easier to have a space program when you have an active growing technical and scientific based economy, instead of a zero sum (or less) economy based on money manipulation and patent extortion.

  3. I don’t think the lack of investment in this country in the basic sciences, (in basic research and the necessary equipment with which to carry it out) has anything to do with government deficits. In my opinion it has to do with government priorities. I would wager that the members of congress who want to cut out spending on basic science do not understand the importance of American’s being a leader in science to the future generations they are so concerned about.

    1. Agreed. Whoever shouts the loudest gets the biggest piece of the pie. And there are some loud voices with entire industries behind them demanding cash. Science has to yell at the top of its lungs just to avoid being drowned out.

  4. When USA started relationship with China (trade), one of the first move the Nixon administration made, was to permit the purchase of 100 $ worth of goods manufactured in China by tourists that visited Hongkong. That was considered as a daring move at that time. – Henry Kissinger.

  5. Hi Professor Matt.
    On the subject of science past and future on diverse continents there appears to be a relative paucity of information on your website pertaining to the International Linear Collider. As the ILC Technical Design Report was released of late it would be of interest to know your personal viewpoint on the potential host location. Would you prefer to see same based in North America, Europe, or Japan?

    1. I don’t think it matters so much who hosts it; it’s a world-wide project. It certainly matters who builds equipment for it and who gets to participate in the data collection and analysis. Of course it would be good for the US program to have the accelerator here in North America, but that’s impossible to discuss right now, given the disarray and priorities in Washington D.C.

      1. Appreciate your insight, keep up your sterling public outreach-work which is always a pleasure to read. Many thanks!

  6. The supercomputer story is not as bad as it sounds. Compare the top two machines (the Chinese Tianhe and the Cray Titan) and you see the Tianhe has twice the speed, but ten times the number of cores (~3 million compared to ~300K). That is the problem with supercomputers: improvements tend to be by brute force and not innovation. Add to that the cores are by and large US designs.

    As far as the other innovations in the Tianhe:
    The new interconnect: maybe something there but if there was, the speed improvement would be more linear.

    The new processor: again, maybe but it looks like just it is a conventional processor with microcode customized for specific types of problems. Not likely to be innovative.

    The new OS: a UNIX variant with more security. Likely no different than what the NSA has been using to analyze your phone calls for years.

    1. The issue is not whether the Chinese have caught up to the technology-leading countries; they have not.

      The point is that they are, steadily, catching up. Ten years ago we simply wouldn’t have had this discussion.

      Moreover, don’t you think it likely that their most powerful computers are actually secret? I doubt this is their most powerful technology; they wouldn’t want the world to know about the real goods.

      The Chinese have a huge population, well-trained scientists, a long history of scientific activity, an economy which is also catching up in size and power, and a big chip on their shoulder (deservedly) concerning treatment by the West. At what point are we going to notice that their investment in science and engineering is paying off in spades? Will our discussion in ten or twenty years time be hand-wringing about all the time that the U.S. sat on its heels?

      1. They have made a lot of progress, but it has been mostly by theft from the west (or trades of technology for market access). I’ve been a software designer for 30 years and have seen it in action. As the Soviets found, it is a good way to catch up, but not a good way to get ahead.

        As to their latest stuff being secret, I kind of doubt it. It’s in the nature of the problems supercomputers are built for. These problems are all of NP complexity and take a lot of brute force for a small improvement in the size of problem you can address. It’s like chess; a computer can look N moves ahead but it takes ten times the power to look N+1 moves ahead.

        Yes they DO have a lot of engineers and many I have worked with are indeed very good. But consider how this computer may have been funded. Might it have been from the billions of $$ in interest payments we send them every year from the treasuries they hold?

        I completely agree with you about the need for more and better science funding. But if we do not address the fiscal situation of the deficit and entitlement spending it won’t matter. Science does pay off in spades but if all our capital is being sent to China to pay the interest, there simply won’t be any money to pay for it.

        BTW, what did the economist you worked with say last week?

        1. SomeGuy: “… but it has been mostly by theft from the west,…”

          So, they did. So, we are certain that they will behind forever and ever more. Good for us.

          SomeGuy: “But consider how this computer may have been funded. Might it have been from the billions of $$ in interest payments we send them every year from the treasuries they hold?”

          What is the point? They stole those treasure bills too?

          The problem of America today is not not-willing investing in science but not-willing to get and to be the best. I am giving you a very simple example.

          Six years ago, President Bush launched a “Star Talk” program (with over one billion dollars in budget) which listed “Chinese language” as one of the strategic language for our national security. Now, after one billion spent, 90% of students who attended the program failed and dropped out and will not return to it forever. The problem is that Chinese language is the hardest one in the world. It takes a native Chinese kid a good 10 school year to be literate in Chinese written language. It will take longer for American kid for that. Those kids failed in the program not only wasted our tax money but received an injury (a failure) to last his entire life. Yet, there is a “claim” that Chinese written language can be mastered in three months (in comparison to 10 long suffering years) for every 10 year old America kid with an initial condition of not knowing a single Chinese word to the point of being able to read the current Chinese newspaper.

          There are already plenty “evidences (case studies)” supporting this claim. Of course, no one (in government and universities) gives a damn about those evidences. But, for the worst, this claim can be tested by randomly selecting 10 kids and let them go through the program ($5,000 cost per kid for three months). But, … hahaha.

          Today, both American people and government do not care for the best.

          1. Tienzen: “…So, we are certain that they will behind forever and ever more….”

            Not at all, but this is not evidence of that. If we saw evidence of REAL innovation in the design of this computer, Matt would be correct. All this article says is that they were willing to spend $$ to brute force something that got them a headline. Since the real innovations (e.g. multi-cores each with multiple pipes all running the same thread) are from the US, I sleep better for now.

            Tienzen: “…What’s the point? They stole those treasure bills too?”

            Obviously not. My point is that as long as we support politicians that pile debt onto the nation and refuse to reform unsustainable entitlements then we must accept that THERE WILL BE NO MONEY FOR SCIENCE. The money that might have spent to support science will instead go to interest payments and propping up entitlements for the next election.

            1. Given how much they spend on defense, including propping up industries like tank manufacturers that aren’t really needed anymore, the US could fund science lavishly by taking a nibble out of the defense budget.

  7. I worked for some time for a company in my country which was (and still is) researching this topic. (In this case to utilize cheap coal power plant ash instead of volcanic ash.) to cut down on costs and emissions.

    In this case at least private industry has a definite impetuous to investigate such things. The only science that will suffer is that which doesn’t offer a relatively immediate financial benefit. Which surely can’t be much, right?


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