The computers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications can take you — virtually, of course — inside a tornado. They can match products with consumers and perhaps someday tackle some of society's most vexing problems.
The NCSA is reaching beyond physicists, astronomers and chemists who have been its backbone since its creation in 1986. It's now helping sociologists, artists and others by exploring new ways to use its ability to compute 41 trillion calculations per second.
"I think over the next 10 to 20 years there's going to be a big shift in how people see this kind of technology," said NCSA director Thom Dunning. "They'll see it starting to really impact problems that they connect very easily with."
The wide-ranging work at NCSA, part of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has included simulating the behavior of molecules in Earth's atmosphere and the development of Mosaic, the graphical browser that opened the World Wide Web to the masses.
But the NCSA also has helped the National Archives find new ways to manage historical records and has collaborated with a musician to present a multimedia opera. It's these kinds of efforts that Dunning expects will be part of NCSA's future.
Earlier this fall, NCSA helped determine overnight where and how fast polluted floodwaters would flow into hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, a job that could have taken days without supercomputers.
Other possibilities include using supercomputers to analyze data that will help judge the affordability of health care as the U.S. population ages, Dunning said.
"What you want to be thinking is how is it that computing technology could really be brought to bear to do those things much more efficiently," he said.