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War, scientific computing, and the future

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Scientific computing and international politics seem unrelated topics, yet we live in an age suffused with technology to the extent that all political decisions are, inescapably, conditioned by technology. Surprisingly topical, perhaps, is computational fluid dynamics. As the shadows of war darken the global scene, many commentators warn that the issues at stake are not only those of weapons of mass destruction but also those of energy supply and security. All market economies are critically dependent on supplies of oil, because few materials offer its benefits of portability and high energy density.

Scientific computing and international politics seem unrelated topics, yet we live in an age suffused with technology to the extent that all political decisions are, inescapably, conditioned by technology. Surprisingly topical, perhaps, is computational fluid dynamics. As the shadows of war darken the global scene, many commentators warn that the issues at stake are not only those of weapons of mass destruction but also those of energy supply and security. All market economies are critically dependent on supplies of oil, because few materials offer its benefits of portability and high energy density.

 

The best current hope of an alternative is the hydrogen economy, where cars contain highly efficient fuel cells powering electric motors. Despite his reputation as an oil man, President Bush has allocated Federal funds to foster research into hydrogen as an alternative fuel.

 

Fuel cell technology has the added environmental advantage of producing only water vapour as waste. But as the article on this website illustrates, fuel cell technology needs to catch up on the decades of empirical research and development that have gone into the internal combustion engine.

 

One way to make up that gap lies in computing. By modelling the performance of fuel cells numerically, it will be possible not only to make faster progress but to develop viable prototypes more cheaply than by building real models and then testing their characteristics. The equations and software of computational fluid dynamics may seem entirely removed from the threat of conflict over Iraq, but if they can help inaugurate an alternative world to that of the oil industry then they might help alleviate the probability of future conflicts.

 

In this issue, Ray Girvan discusses the scientific context of the technologies of image processing. Again, few things could seem to be further removed from the preparations for war than techniques for extracting the maximum amount of data from images of distant galaxies. But we can be sure that Iraq is under constant observation from orbiting satellites, taking images of every suspicious movement - and that the Pentagon and the US National Security Agency are using every technique they possess to extract the maximum amount of information from the data that they have acquired. Those who think war inevitable look for the 'Adlai Stevenson moment' - the contemporary equivalent of the turning point in the Cuban missile crisis when the USA produced irrefutable photographs of the missiles in their Cuban bases.

 

For those who think that the UN team in Iraq might still succeed in their mission to inspect and disarm, one of the outstanding points of contention between Iraq and the inspectors, at the time this magazine goes to press, is Iraq's refusal to guarantee the safety of overflights by U2 planes whose observations, scientifically processed, would fill a crucial gap between what can be detected by satellite and by ground-based observations. Quite properly, neither of these articles in this issue of Scientific Computing World assign to the technologies they discuss a greater role than comparatively narrow scientific applications.

But at this time of international tension, it is worth remarking at least once on how they could contribute to making ours a safer and more peaceful world.

Dr Tom Wilkie
Dr Tom Wilkie