UCSD Supercomputer Center shaped by two Del Mar residents


When the San Diego Supercomputer Center opened on the UCSD campus in 1985, its first machine, the CRAY XMP-48, cost $14 million and was considered one of the fastest computers in the world. Today’s iPhones, which can fit easily in a pocket or purse, are more powerful.

Over the past 32 years, the Supercomputer Center’s technology has advanced exponentially; its two latest super computers, Gordon and Comet, far outpace their early forerunner in speed, memory and other parameters. And two Del Mar residents, Sid Karin and Michael Norman, have helped guide the center to its current prominence as a research tool for the national academic community — one of four academic supercomputer centers operating across the United States.

Norman, 63, the center’s current director, is an astrophysicist whose research simulates the early universe following the Big Bang when galaxies were formed. He’s also principal investigator on both Gordon and Comet, which were funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, to the tune of $20 million and $24 million, respectively.

A supercomputer, said Norman, is “just vastly more powerful than your desktop.” Comet, which came on line in 2015, “is made up of 2,000 desktop computers hooked together with a very fast network, so they can talk to each other.”

Comet is built in a series of 27 racks, each holding the processors that provide its computing power. It takes up one end of the floor inside the heart of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, laid out in two parallel rows. Gordon, the previous generation supercomputer, which is still in use, is located in another section of the center.

About 250 people work at the center, which takes up three buildings on the La Jolla university campus.

The primary uses of the supercomputers, said Norman, are simulations and big data analytics. Supercomputers are used by researchers from many different scientific disciplines.

“It’s a universal tool,” Norman said.

One of the first HIV drugs was designed on the computer, said Norman, and it is used for everything from computational chemistry and genome analysis to engineering, physics, astronomy, economics, political science and linguistics. At any one time, he said, about 200 research projects are underway on each of the center’s supercomputers, with scientists, graduate students and others accessing the computers remotely.

One project, called CIPRES (CyberInfrastructure for Phylogenetic RESearch), is creating a “tree of life,” by analyzing the genetic sequences of bacteria, and some 3,000 researchers from around the world are participating, Norman said.

Sid Karin, 73, the center’s founding director and now director emeritus, was working as a nuclear engineer at General Atomics when he came up with the idea of creating a supercomputer for academic researchers in the United States.

With the support of the company’s president, he took the idea to academic institutions and later submitted a proposal for funding to the National Science Foundation. San Diego’s bid was one of three awarded by the foundation initially, Karin said.

The supercomputer was used for such simulations as studying the interactions of different types of molecules, and even for analyzing the mechanics of car crashes as a way of improving highway safety.

Karin served as director for 15 years, stepping down around 2000.

“I’m pretty proud of what we did,” he said. Among the early initiatives, he said, were the supercomputer’s use for computational biology - “bringing computing to the biology community writ large” and big data, or data intensive computing.

As he has watched the rapid advances in computer technology, he said, such areas as workforce training and development of both social and legal parameters to deal with the capabilities of computing power have not kept up.

“I think we need to have more of a discussion and debate about how we want things to be,” particularly in areas such as data privacy, Karin said.

“My question is, you go to [a store], they remember you personally, you bought a box of Tide, that’s fine, it’s good merchandising. But when they start selling that information, I’m not so sure that’s really OK,” he said.

Norman, the father of two daughters, lives in Del Mar with his wife of 40 years, Susan, a retired businesswoman.

Karin said he continues to do some consulting work and sits on oversight committees for government labs at Livermore and Los Alamos, but is mostly retired, and spends his time on travel, photography and flying his small airplane.