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The Supercomputer Era by Sidney Karin and Norris Parker Smith (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 336 pp., illustrated)

July 26, 1987|Ken Fermoyle | Fermoyle, a writer/editor in the aerospace industry, contributes to a variety of computer publications and is a desk-top publishing consultant.

Tools are important artifacts of the past and significant clues to the future. "The Supercomputer Era" gives us an overview of the ultimate tools man has developed to date: supercomputers, with performance guaranteed to boggle the mind of anyone accustomed to microcomputer PCs, or even the most powerful mainframe computers.

On a scale of 1 to 100, with contemporary supercomputers rated at 100, here's how other types rank in a performance comparison: mainframes, 1 to 10; minicomputers, 0.1 to 5; work stations, 0.1 to 1; personal computers, .001 to 0.1.

The authors of this first book on supercomputers, Dr. Sidney Karin, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and Norris Parker Smith, senior writer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's News Bureau, provide a detailed look at this expanding technology. They describe the machines, the people who use them and the tasks they can do--tasks that often can't even be attempted by other tools.

Equally important, they write in understandable terms, not the techno-jargon that limits potential readership of many important books on technology.

Aptly chosen analogies help readers grasp concepts that might otherwise be too arcane for laymen. Diagrams and illustrations sprinkled through the book also help clarify important points.

As a result, "The Supercomputer Era" not only is an essential reference work for computer specialists but one that can and should be read by a much wider audience.

Descriptions of current supercomputer applications "may seem brief and technically inadequate to experts in each field . . . (but) the intent is to make them comprehensible to people in other fields," the authors explain.

Their hope is that examples cited may suggest ways for readers in different disciplines--academic, scientific or business--to use supercomputers profitably in their own endeavors.

The book appears at an opportune time, since several factors have recently combined to increase supercomputing capacity.

Spurred by a five-year, $200-million National Science Foundation program started in 1985, five new supercomputer centers at American universities are making the enormous power of such machines available to ever larger numbers of researchers in science and industry. Karin and Smith outline how these projects and others in the public and private sectors are progressing--as well as examples of how the new capacity is being used.

"After a number of years of steady growth in relative obscurity, the market is now entering the big time," they report. "Estimates of market growth differ, but even the most conservative projections expect double-digit annual growth."

Areas being explored with supercomputing tools range from studies of the galaxies and subatomic particles to tomorrow's climate. Nor do they stop at theory and pure research.

One of the most important facets of this book, in fact, may be the way it underscores the practical aspects of supercomputing. The authors document specific case histories of how supercomputers are being used by AT&T, Apple Computer, DuPont, Aerojet General, financial firms and many auto companies (GM, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Saab, etc.).

One disturbing note introduced by Karin and Smith strikes a familiar chord; it deals with potential loss of leadership by the United States in a field it has dominated to date.

"So far, the supercomputer era has been primarily an American era. Like most other major developments in computing . . . supercomputers originated in the United States. Until the mid-1980s, supercomputer manufacturing was an American monoply.

"It could become a Japanese era. Japanese manufacturers, working closely with universities and the Japanese government, are pursuing ambitious goals with characteristic persistence and ingenuity. Complacence or inattention in the United States could lead to quick erosion of the American lead."

The far-reaching implications of such a loss unfold in the pages of "The Supercomputer Era." We are made to understand the importance of supercomputing tools right now, and how many future developments can be realized only with their help. This may be the ultimate benefit that the authors provide.

Karin (who earned MS and Ph.D. degrees in nuclear engineering at Michigan) and Smith (with BA and MA degrees from Cornell and Harvard, respectively) have done so many things right in this book that the flaws are almost inconsequential.

The glossary is excellent, for example, though it omits some terms (kludge, node and a few others) that won't be familiar to many readers. The writing dodges most of the traps that mar much technical writing but does include some grating redundancies. "In order to" appears frequently where a simple "to" would suffice. There are also some lapses into the passive voice.

"The Supercomputer Era" definitely is an important book. If its readership is confined to computer specialists and other technologists, that will be unfortunate. It deserves a wider audience--and a wider audience should be exposed to the information the book contains.

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