Pi, Medium-Rare

29 Jul, 2005 | ComputersTdpScience And Technology

I like reading about computers, especially people who do strange or unusual things with them. Mathematics is also a field that fascinates me. So I was reading Jason’s entry about the Chudnovsky brothers with great interest. I headed off to The New Yorker pages to check out their articles. Absolutely fascinating, I’d like to thank Richard Preston for both of his articles, I enjoyed them immensely (and to Jason for pointing them out, $30 well spent that).

Gregory and David Chudnovsky are, primarily, mathematicians, but they seem to delve into computer programming, image manipulation and supercomputer design fairly successfully too. This is mainly to support their research into Pi. You see, they were using rented time on other people’s supercomputers, but at $750 an hour (you read that right), they decided it was better to spend their money building their own. So they did, in one of their apartments. I assume they went out and grabbed a ton of books on computer design and programming, came up with the design and ordered all their parts through ordinary outlets. That’s right, they built a supercomputer using off-the-shelf parts, for $70,000 and this was back in 1991/2. Google is reported to be run in a very similar way and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University bought 1,100 Apple G5’s and chained them together to make a supercomputer. They’re still far more expensive than m zero (as the Chudnovsky’s machine is called, their fourth attempt).

Anyway, go read the articles, but I’ll leave you with a bit that made me laugh so hard I had tears in my eyes (the brothers are constantly fighting high temperatures, most supercomputers use hyper-cooled air or liquid -- like nitrogen -- to keep operating temperatures below meltdown, these guys don’t, relying on normal fans and an air conditioner in the window of the room of their apartment in which the supercomputer is installed):

The brothers had thrust the thermometer between two circuit boards in order to look for hot spots inside m zero [their supercomputer]. The thermometer’s dial was marked “Beef Rare—Ham—Beef Med—Pork.”

“You want to keep the machine below ‘Pork,’” Gregory remarked.