Astrophysicist Larry Smarr needed a super computer a decade ago to handle the complex equations of his work on the black holes of space. But no American university had such an advanced machine for basic academic research, so the University of Illinois professor had to beg computer time from friends at government military labs and in West Germany, where non-military use of super computers was more common.
Smarr's frustrations finally ended last month when the National Science Foundation announced that it will spend $200 million over five years to establish and operate four super computer centers that research scientists nationwide will be able to tap into.
Smarr and a small cadre of colleagues committed to maintaining the United States' technological and scientific edge played a crucial role in drawing up reports and lobbying Congress for funds to create the national super computer network at four universities--the University of California, San Diego, the University of Illinois, Princeton and Cornell.
Got a Ready Reception
The scientists' plan found a ready reception from lawmakers worried about competition, especially from the Japanese.
"A key (in Congress) was the fact that the Japanese now produce super computers comparable to ours," said Kenneth G. Wilson, a Nobel laureate in physics who will direct the new Cornell center. "That attracted both the media and congressional interest. And there is no question that in the political forum, the effects of Japanese computer competition was crucial."
The scientists believe the new centers will end more than a decade of inattention by national leaders to the future computer needs of American science. The first is to open early next year at UC San Diego.
Increasingly, scientists in fields ranging from astronomy to molecular biology require super computers, which have the capability to handle one billion calculations per second. Such machines already have become common tools in the aerospace and oil exploration industries--as well as in military research-- but have not been generally available to basic researchers at universities because of their prohibitive costs.
'U.S. Was Asleep'
"The United States was asleep (technologically) during the 1970s, and Germany and Japan weren't," Smarr, who will direct the Illinois center, said in a telephone interview. "What Germany and Japan did in putting super computers into the hands of universities, and especially graduate students, was logical. By not doing that, we were peculiar.
"The announcement (last month) was like waking up from a bad dream. But we still have a ways to move for going such a long time in not training students and scientists on the most advanced computers."
Smarr and Wilson spent much of 1984 lobbying on Capitol Hill.
"We had a lot of help from Dr. Wilson and others," Rep. Don Fuqua (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said last week. "But my colleagues are keenly interested in seeing that our country does not miss the boat in training our graduate students at the university level in the latest technology. There's strong support in Congress for this program."
But until recently, such support seemed elusive.
Smarr had discovered that university scientists could obtain time on industry or government super computers only through personal contacts.
"It was dependent on whom you knew and on whom you could convince to sponsor you," Smarr said. Purchase of commercial time could cost up to $2,000 an hour, Smarr said, a prohibitive amount when a generous federal scientific grant for computer time might run $10,000 for an entire year. In addition, since university professors would have to travel to the computer location, the work would be concentrated in summer vacation periods.
Smarr and Wilson served on a scientific panel that produced a 1981 report pointing out the lack of available computers for theoretical physics, a field in which basic research often produces benefits across a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines. They also contributed to a 1982 study involving the U.S. departments of defense and energy and the National Science Foundation, which concluded that American scientists were facing a computer crisis.
$100 Million Needed
A subsequent science foundation report found that $100 million or more would be needed to solve the problems identified in the 1982 study.
"We then began by asking Congress for $6 million (in 1983) to buy commercial time for scientists on super computers," the science foundation's John Connolly said.
In the meantime, Smarr, assisted by 65 colleagues ranging from accounting professors to biologists, had put together his own proposal for a computing center at Illinois. He sent the proposal to the science foundation. It was soon followed by another unsolicited application from GA Technologies, the La Jolla atomic research firm that will run the UC San Diego center.