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March 29, 2004

The Higgs Boson & Supercomputing

I can tell that I'm about to become an old man. I know this because the most incredible technological fantasy I ever imagined is almost about to become something of a reality. Let me describe the fantasy.

When I was a kid and I would be sitting in the back seat of Pop's 1968 VW Bus on our way up to the Angeles Crest I would watch the freeway go by. But on the interminable trips to Mt. Baldy or Crystal Lake I fell into a trance doing this on the 60 Freeway. During one of these trances I imagined myself to be the pilot of an incredible machine flying low over Earth at about 60 miles per hour. My machine, disguised as a yellow steel and glass internal combustion engine vehicle with rubber wheels had a sophisticated system of laser scanners and a Molecular Forge.

The Molecular Forge was a less complicated version of the Subatomic Forge, but I hadn't been promoted to that level of surveyor in the Earth Observation League. What I did for the League was to take my machine, affectionately known as 'The Bus' and scan massive chunks of roadside property.

The first lasers, the Mappers, would scan the surface and composition of the target area to a depth of 3 meters and record the shape and position of the zillions of atoms, figure out their molecular structure, temperature and everything else about them. Secondly, the Disintegrators would vaporize the target areas and break them down into molecular cloud. The Forge lasers themselves would reassemble all these bits adding subtle tags which tied the reconstructed material back to the massive Survey. Ultimately we would know more about the Earth than the Earthlings, and if we found it suitable we could take over the planet at will.

I was proud of my machine, but why they assigned me to the Pomona Freeway was a humiliation I couldn't explain.

I've been a database guy forever. Even before I understood any computing theory, I had always envisioned their ultimate purpose as replacing librarians. We've come close enough in that we use it to Orkut librarians. But now it appears that some of the ultimate databases are being assembled. Why? In order to map subatomic particles of course.

In an 8 hour session of atom smashing, the new supercomputing grid being assembled for CERN is going to generate 10 terabytes of data. They're going to do this day in and day out. To help you comprehend the magnitude of this, right now the record for the largest database is somewhere around 67 terabytes. Now this is commercial information (I think it's the telephone billing system for NTT) and I'm sure that when you get into signals intercepts and telemetry for Echelon, there's plenty of terabytes online that we'll just never know about. But these guys are going to destroy those records in just a week of operations.

So they've invented new technologies to handle this awesome science. The Mappers are real. By the time my kids grow up, they'll have the whole VW Bus, and I can die happy.

Posted by mbowen at March 29, 2004 12:18 PM

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