August/September 2009


Simulation through the years

It is 25 years since we produced the first commercial software using the Boundary Element Method (BEM) to simulate electric fields. It was to revolutionise the way Maxwell’s equations are applied in physics and electrical engineering.

Computing power then was a very expensive Intel 8088 processor with 8087 coprocessor, monitor, 640KB of memory, 10MB hard disk and special graphics card. It was a major challenge to solve real world problems.


Making the connection

HPC systems have all but turned away from a single giant piece of iron in favour of distributed computing using commercial off-the-shelf servers with hundreds or even thousands of nodes, all of which must all be interconnected. For many people configuring an HPC system, their first thought when it comes to interconnect might be to use the Ethernet ports that are standard on virtually every server and thus are essentially ‘free’, because they seemingly don’t add any cost to the system. But does this logic really hold water?


Asking the big questions

Finding sufficient and sustainable sources of energy is one of the most pressing issues facing modern society. The global need to reduce greenhouse emissions is going to become more urgent, fossil fuel resources are going to become scarcer, while the energy requirements of our modern society are unlikely to reduce appreciably. Renewable sources such as wind and solar power are providing some of society’s energy needs, but many believe that nuclear power is going to be important for meeting future needs without relying on fossil fuels.


Molecular alchemy

The discovery of a new element is so infrequent these days that such an event warrants international news coverage. The opposite is the case for the discovery of new proteins, ligands, materials or other molecules; in fact, databases such as the Worldwide Protein Data Bank ( have been set up to help the experts keep up with frequent new discoveries.


A taste for LIMS

In contrast to home grown produce, industrial food production occurs on a large scale and at a high level of complexity. British Sugar’s four sugar beet processing plants, for instance, which are located in Norfolk and the East Midlands, operate around the clock to process 7.5 million tonnes of sugar beet between September and March every year. The sugar beet goes through a number of stages to extract and purify the sugar, and the factories are akin in complexity to refinement plants in the oil or chemical industries.


Analysis is the mother of invention

Invention isn't what it used to be. When I made the decision (at age 11, or thereabouts) to be the freelance scientist that I now am, I had a lot of role models in mind, but prominent among them was the anarchic spirit of absent-minded inventor Professor Branestawm[1]. It was still easy to find real inventors like him, then; I knew one, and was taught by a couple more as an undergraduate. Nowadays, while part of him still lurks in many outwardly staid scientists, they would never acknowledge him.