Tag Archives: computers

Science Past and Future, on Diverse Continents

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…