Imagine harnessing the power of the sun within a magnetic bottle. Unlike hydrogen bombs, which are essentially uncontrolled fusion reactions, scientists for decades have been pursuing the peaceful challenge of safely harnessing fusion energy, a potentially efficient and environmentally attractive energy source. Progress in addressing this scientific grand challenge, suggested William Tang, the Director of the Fusion Simulation Program at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) has benefited substantially from advances in super-computing. At the March 10 Lunch ‘n Learn, Tang noted that such capabilities continue to progress at a remarkable rate, from tera-to-petascale today, and to exascale in the near future.
In the early 1980s, scientists began to wonder whether, with existing technology, we could determine the sequence of the human genome, that is, the sequences in the DNA that we pass on to our children. And would we be able to interpret the language of the Genome?
As it turns out, says David Botstein, that our estimates of the cost and the duration were just about right. And so, he pondered at the February 17 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, just what did we get for the $3B spent to determine the sequence of the human genome?
We got not only the sequence of the human but also of 1000’s of other organisms, from yeast (12 megabases) and worms (100 megabases) through humans (3,300 megabases). The sequence of the human genome, the primary goal of the Human Genome Project, was achieved just a few years ago. Because our genomes are a string of 3 billion sequences of four chemical letters in the DNA polymer, the ability to obtain genomic sequences depended on revolutionary progress not just in DNA chemistry but also on the equally revolutionary advances in speed, capacity and versatility of digital computers.
Says Princeton Computer Science professor Brian Kernighan: “As calculators and computers have become steadily more powerful, they have buried us in an avalanche of numbers and graphs and charts, many of which claim to present the truth about important issues. But at the same time, our personal facility with numbers has diminished, often leaving us at the mercy of quantitative reasoning and presentation that is sometimes wrong and often not disinterested.”
For the past ten years, Dr. Kernighan has been teaching a course that satisfies “QR”, Princeton’s dreaded Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Increasingly, he has come to view a significant part of the QR component as basic numeric self-defense: assessing the numbers presented by other people, and producing sensible numbers of one’s own.
Imagine a computer that made direct use of quantum mechanical phenomena. Such a machine would likely operate exponentially faster than our present computers.
Zahid Hasan is leading an international scientific collaboration that has observed an exciting and strange behavior in electrons’ spin within a new material that could be harnessed to transform computing and electronics. The team believes that the discovery is an advance in the fundamental physics of quantum systems and could lead to significant progress in electronics, computing and information science.
The team has been searching for a material whose atoms, when placed in certain configurations, would trigger electrons to produce exotic “quantum” effects. In the Feb. 13 issue of Science, the team reported that the quantum Hall effect, a phenomena in condensed-matter physics, can occur within a carefully constructed crystal made of an antimony alloy laced with bismuth. The behavior involves a strange form of rotation that could potentially transform computing and storage.
In the Internet’s early years, some observers believed that the new technology would reduce social inequality in at least two ways. First, by reducing the price of information, it would make information more available, and therefore level the playing field. Second, because young people appeared to have the inside track in mastering and using the new technologies (and because youth is negatively associated with wealth and uncorrelated with other indicators of socioeconomic status), some felt that the advantage of the young would likewise reduce certain kinds of inequality in access to and use of information. By contrast, other more jaded observers predicted that the well to do and well educated would use their resources to extract more benefit from the Web than for their less prosperous and well schooled neighbors, reproducing or even exacerbating inequality rather than moderating it.
In his Lunch ‘n Learn seminar on December 2, Paul DiMaggio addressed three issues. First, what is the status of the digital divide? Which divides (i.e. inequality in access to the Internet between which groups) have persisted and which have moderated over time, and why? Second, once people go on-line, how does social inequality shape their experience, how they use the Internet and what they get out of it? Third, what difference does it make? What evidence addresses the question of whether access to and use of the internet does (or does not) improve people’s life chances and ability to participate in their communities?