2014: Black Holes and Supercomputing

AWARDEE: Larry Smarr

SCIENCE: Black Holes and Supercomputing

FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCY: National Science Foundation

Some have joked that the Internet is like a black hole, sucking us in for hours of use each day. But did you know that your ability to access the Web can actually be traced to the study of black holes in space? More specifically, to federally funded research on black hole collisions, conducted by scientist Larry Smarr in the 1980’s. While the study of black holes crashing into each other, deep in space, might appear to have no practical application, the story of how Dr. Smarr’s research ultimately led to the creation of the first Internet browsers, like Netscape Navigator, illustrates how the most basic, curiosity-driven science can end up having an impact on the lives of billions of people.

More than thirty years ago, while at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Smarr was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a project designed to model collisions of black holes in outer space. A black hole is a region of space that gravity prevents anything, including light, from escaping. A collision between two black holes is an awesome thing to consider. Not surprisingly, such modeling requires enormous computing power, but this was generally unavailable in the United States at the time, particularly at universities, where most federally supported research is done. At the time, such computing power was more accessible to scientists working overseas.

Smarr wrote a passionate position paper, “The Supercomputer Famine in American Universities,” arguing that the United States was falling behind international competitors by failing to invest in supercomputing resources at research universities. The NSF responded to this call by issuing a solicitation for, and then funding, proposals submitted by Dr. Smarr and others to create a set of university-based supercomputing centers, including the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in Illinois, of which Smarr was the first director.

The NCSA was at the forefront in the early days of the Internet, which at that time was accessible only to those who were working on expensive, Unix-based machines. At NCSA, a student, Marc Andreessen, and a staff member, Erica Bina, recognized the need for a more user-friendly gateway to the Internet and together created the code for a program called Mosaic. This, the first Web browser, was ultimately commercialized as the popular browser Netscape Navigator, opening the World Wide Web to a mainstream audience and beginning the public Internet revolution.

Today, you can enter “black hole collisions” into any Web browser and be dazzled by extraordinary images of deep space encounters. Who would have guessed that our everyday access to these spectacular pictures would have been made possible by the federally funded research that sought to explore this seemingly obscure astronomical knowledge?