Scientists Say: Supercomputer

These super high-speed computers perform complex calculations for research on cancer, quantum physics and more

computer hardware with lots of exposed wires is stored in three refrigerator size cabinets

The Frontier supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee (some components pictured) recently broke the record for world’s fastest computer.

Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Supercomputer (noun, “SOOP-er-com-PEW-ter”)

A supercomputer is a very fast computer. That is, it can do a huge number of calculations per second. Supercomputers are so fast because they are made up of many processing units. These include central processing units, or CPUs. They can also include graphics processing units, or GPUs. Those processors work together to solve problems much faster than a typical home computer could.

“You may have one CPU, or at most two CPUs in a normal home computer,” says Justin Whitt. “And you usually have one GPU.” Whitt is a computational scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The world’s fastest supercomputer is Frontier. It’s housed at Oak Ridge. There, tens of thousands of processors are stored in cabinets about as big as refrigerators. “They take up an area about the size of a basketball court,” says Whitt. He is Frontier’s project director. In total, Frontier weighs about as much as two Boeing 747 jets, Whitt says. And all that hardware can do more than 1 million million million calculations per second.

Supercomputers like Frontier don’t have screens. People who want to use the machine’s vast computing power access it remotely, Whitt says. “They use their screen on their laptop to interact with the supercomputer.”

Some of the world’s other top supercomputers are also housed at U.S. national labs. Others are based at research centers in Japan, China and Europe. Many home computers can even be connected to form “virtual” supercomputers. One example is Folding@home. That vast network of computers runs models of proteins. Those models help researchers study diseases.

Supercomputers are often used to tackle problems in science. Their mega computing power lets them model very complex systems. That number-crunching can be used to develop new drugs. Or it can help design new materials to make better batteries or buildings. Such high-speed machines are also used to explore quantum physics, climate change and more.

You might never have seen a supercomputer in person. But you may have tapped into this technology from afar. Some of these machines power supersmart artificial intelligence programs. Those include the AI systems behind virtual assistants, such as Siri and Alexa, and self-driving cars. “That’s one way you see supercomputers in daily life,” Whitt says.

In a sentence

Supercomputers run models of complex interactions — such as those in quantum physics — that normal computers could not handle.

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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