As with almost every aspect of daily life, computers have changed the face of scientific research. After centuries of physical experiments conducted by scientists to prove or disprove hypotheses, experiments are now simulated by powerful computers to solve complex problems that would have been impossible to undertake a generation ago.

Science in the digital age involves creating statistical representations of complicated research questions and using high-performance computing to perform the thousands upon thousands of calculations needed to find the answers—or to find more questions worth exploring. Although scientists need solid math skills to write the algorithms that drive the computer simulations, computational science has expanded far beyond engineers and physicists to include medical researchers, meteorologists, and environmental scientists. “High-performance computing is an increasingly important tool to do any kind of science,” Vice Chancellor of Research and Graduate Studies John Gilligan says. “It’s matured to the point where it’s integrated into the discovery process.”

The trend is reflected in federal research grants, which flow more and more toward projects that involve high-performance computing, Gilligan says. The National Science Foundation has singled that out as a thrust for funding, and the Department of Defense, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health all have placed big bets on computational research to solve problems involving nanotechnology, molecular biology, and astronomy.

To tap into those resources, NC State has created a high-performance computing program from scratch in the past three years and has expanded its already close relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, which houses one of the world’s fastest supercomputers. The University and ORNL share five faculty members through joint appointments—up from just one five years ago—and NC State is part of an effort to obtain an even-faster supercomputer for the lab. Opportunities to collaborate with ORNL will only increase in the future, Gilligan says, making it imperative for NC State to emphasize high-performance computing throughout its curriculum. “The challenge,” he says, “is to make sure local computing facilities allow the training and scale-up so we can take advantage of the larger system.”

This issue of RESULTS looks at some of those high-performance computing efforts—on both the technical end and in research applications.