Signing On, Linking Up, Worldwide
By Jon Van
March 18, 1990
Sitting at his computer in Evanston [IL], Arthur Freeman manipulates on-screen images that represent his theories of how superconducting materials are made.
Calculations handled 200 miles away
The massive calculations to keep track of electrons that populate Freeman's model are handled some 200 miles away by a Cray supercomputer at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Files sent to Vienna
When he completes his manipulations of the model, Freeman, a physicist at Northwestern University, sends his work file to collaborators at the Technical University of Vienna in Austria.
The Austrian scientists then perform their own calculations, exploring theoretical photoelectric effects in the model, and send their results back to Freeman for further analysis.
The scientists are thousands of miles and seven time zones apart, but their joint work proceeds almost as smoothly as if they were across the hall from each other.
Information sent directly to labs
When Freeman and his Austrian colleagues make predictions about the superconducting materials based upon their theoretical work, they can send relevant information directly to researchers who test the theories in their labs.
Such international research collaborations, which have sprung up using various computer network combinations, are likely to become more common now that the main research computer networks in the U.S. and Europe have been linked by a fiber-optic connection under the Atlantic Ocean.
In addition to linking the National Science Foundation computer network to its counterpart in Europe, the partnership that runs the network also intends to upgrade it, so information can be transferred almost 30 times faster than at present.
"This is really exciting, something we've wanted to see happen for a few years now," Freeman said.
Use of the science foundation's computer network has increased more than four-fold in the last year. Many predict the network, which serves primarily to link academic researchers, is a prototype for a national computer network for research and education that will include scientists from industry and government.
National network endorsed
The Bush administration and several members of Congress have endorsed the concept of a national research computer network. A major backer of the idea, Sen. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) has compared such a network to the interstate highway system in discussing its potential impact on commerce.
Partners operating the National Science Foundation network include International Business Machines, the Merit Computer Network, MCI Communications Corp. and the State of Michigan.
Optical fiber development key
Larry Bouman, an MCI vice-president, said that development of optical fibers has been vital to both the technology and economics of the network.
Because optical fibers can carry so much information, scientists like Freeman can transmit the equivalent of hundreds of pages of information in a few seconds, Bouman said.
"The fiber-optic network had reduced the cost and provided the capacity to do this kind of connection," Bouman said.
Besides sending words and calculations over the network, scientists can exchange complex graphics and even moving pictures that simulate weather patterns, Bouman said.
Copyright (c) 1990 Chicago Tribune
Taken from The Link Letter, Vol. 3 No. 1, April 1990.