3° with Jim Myers

by Michael Mullaney on May 16, 2011

Jim Myers, director of the Rensselaer supercomputing center, CCNI, was recently named to the High Performance Computing (HPC) Advisory Committee of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness.

We ask Jim about his work:

Q: So, why is CCNI so super?

A: Every hour, CCNI does more calculations than everyone on the planet working together could do in a lifetime. And more importantly, the researchers and companies who use CCNI know how to harness that power to make cutting-edge discoveries and design advanced new products. CCNI is super because it amplifies our human ability to innovate.

What is parallel processing all about?

We all parallel process whenever we work as a team – each person works on a small piece of a larger problem the team is trying to solve. CCNI works the same way – with thousands of processors working on smaller parts of one big problem at the same time. Just as coordinating a team can be harder than working alone, “parallel programming” can be harder than programming for your home computer. But in both cases, the ability to solve problems faster and to solve larger problems is worth the effort.

Tell me briefly about your Medici@RPI project.

Medici brings a lot of the ease-of-use we expect from web applications to the management of scientific data sets. It actually looks a bit like Flickr and lets you tag data, but it can also track data “provenance” – where data comes from – to support reproducible research. Being able to dig back from results to understand how they were derived becomes increasingly important as we use supercomputers to do scientific experiments, design new products, and inform decision making. I should note that Medici was developed by my former colleagues at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (where Mosaic, the first web browser, came from) and we’re hoping that it will be a part of an ongoing collaboration between several universities.

Your undergraduate degree is in physics, and your doctorate is in chemistry. How did you end up in computer science?

I realized, as did the people who created CCNI, that one of the best ways to accelerate innovation is to harness computer science research and computational resources. In my case, I kept finding situations where some relatively simple programming enabled my research, and that of my colleagues, to go a lot faster – more science was getting done than if I stayed in the lab 24 hours a day. That just snow-balled and eventually landed me here.

Here’s a short list of totally unrealistic movies about scary computers gone bad: Tron, War Games, The Matrix, Westworld, Terminator 2, I Robot. Which one is tops, in your book?

First – let me just say that I sleep fine at night, and the CCNI computers have shown no signs of wanting to take over the world. While all of these movies have interesting ideas in them, I’d have to pick Westworld just because it raised things like the idea of using computers for entertainment and computer viruses so early.

You’ve been in the Troy area for almost a year. What’s your favorite restaurant so far?

Wait a minute – it’s actually been less than six months – snowy ones at that! We’ve got a lot more exploring to do, but we like Ala Shanghai in Latham. They have a very broad menu and the atmosphere reminds my wife and I of places we went in graduate school.

Read more about Jim here. And be sure to check out our other 3° Interviews on The Approach.