SALT LAKE CITY — A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in the fields of science, they can be worth billions and billions of bytes of information.
A few years ago, then Hewlett-Packard CEO Mark Hurd said "more data will be created in the next four years than in the history of the planet." Hurd's prediction was understated. Studies have showed that humanity has created more computer data than all documents in the entire past 40,000 years — and that was in 2007.
Housed within tall whirring towers of servers at the University of Utah's Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute are mind-boggling amounts of information: global weather data, chemistry combustion simulations on space shuttle heat shield panels, or physics experiments, just to name a few.
Computer science professor Valerio Pascucci holds an iPad in his hands with what looks like a gray rock canyon. The iPad is tied wirelessly into the more powerful computer servers, which process the image. Using his fingers to pinch-zoom out, the canyon turns out to be the corner of an eye; further out, a face, a head, and so forth — it's a super-detailed image of Michelangelo's "David."
Using this image, one can zoom in and see the marks of how the marble was chiseled. Focusing on one of the sculpture's calves, Pascucci shows how someone had even carved his initials into the famous statue, hundreds of years ago.
It was not too long ago that scientists stored their data in tables, bound in paper volumes. But with an explosion in advancements in science and computing, researchers have, in a way, become the victims of their own success.
"Now, it would be impossible because you wouldn't have enough paper to do that, let alone go through the data and understand it," Pascucci said.
From engineering and cosmology, to chemistry and medicine, the demand for super computing to make sense of vast quantities of data has become intense.
Pascucci, along with colleague Giorgio Scorzelli, helped to create the Center for Extreme Data Management Analysis and Visualization this past summer at the university. Funding for the center was approved by the Utah Board of Regents.
The center will serve as a resource to help scientists make sense of their data using super computers.
Center researchers project what looks like a work of art on a blank wall. Swirls of purple and orange create something akin to flames. And that's just what they are: virtual flames created inside a computer. Using these simulations, scientists can better understand the properties of materials, including how two different types of fluids interact.
"In just the last 10 years it's become a million times bigger. The interesting part is there seems to be no end to it," Pascucci, who teaches a course in scientific visualization, said. "A few years ago, just a gigabyte was a lot. Now, we're easily into tens of terabytes and we have simulations already creating petabytes, about a million times bigger than a gigabyte."
Some would be surprised to know that the source of some of this major computing hardware actually comes from video game console cards — the same kind that fuels graphics for the latest video games. Center researchers said the video game cards are actually highly advanced computer processors that can handle pretty sophisticated graphics, as well as physics simulations.
"This is cutting-edge research," said U. vice president of government relations Jason Perry. "It's going to change everything, from medicine to business."
Perry said the new center will help boost the speed and quality of research at the U., which in turn will also fuel new technologies and businesses.
"The amount of data being created every single day is requiring that someone is able to show it in a way that we can understand," Perry said.
Pascucci said the center has already collaborated with major computing labs around the world, including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.
The center has already created apps allowing scientists to access their simulations on iPhones and iPads. The potential for greater scientific discoveries has many at the U. excited for what the near future will hold.