Super-computers and the science of ice-cream: Cray & Nvidia team up on the perfect Neapolitan

cray-supercomputer
Image Credit: Cray

Lick that cone, ice cream boy. Just don’t be thinking about the trillions of calculations that went into making that flavor taste just right.

Supercomputers are often used, so we hear, to model nuclear explosions. Life-and-death stuff like weather and storm patterns — like maybe global warming simulations. Or maybe the way aircraft wing metals age and weaken over time. So that’s what you might expect would occupy the time of an ultra-sophisticated Cray XK6, theoretically capable of scaling to 500,000 processors and 50 petaflops of peak performance.

But scientists at the University of Edinburgh have turned to supercomputers to understand … ice cream.

“If you zoom in on these substances — if you were able to view them microscopically — you would see that they’re actually made up from quite complicated structures of different materials,” says Dr. Alan Gray, a professor at Edinburgh.

Who knew?

Working with Cray supercomputers, the scientists are trying to understand how ice cream’s constituent parts — like the cookie dough in my favorite flavor — interact and change over time. Part of that is to make it better: more yum per lick, perhaps. And part of that is to make it last longer at peak flavor.

The supercomputer they’re using?

It’s built from graphical processing units originally designed to run games like Quake, or Doom, or (get to the modern stuff, granpaw) BioShock Infinite on your PC. In fact, this particular top-of-the-line ice cream simulator is running 936 NVidia Tesla 20-series processors, each of which comes with six gigabytes of memory and can run at speeds of up to 515 gigaflops.

Above: Nvidia Tesla 20-series GPU

Image Credit: Nvidia

In English, 515 gigaflops translates into 515,000,000,000 calculations per second. That’s 515 billion … each and every second.

It sounds big and it sounds fast, and it is. But … that’s just a single processor. And the machine that Edinburgh used to simulate ice cream, with all of 963 processors, is just a baby machine compared to what is actually possible.

A 500,000 processor Cray XK6 at 50 petaflops could theoretically run 50,000,000,000,000,000 operations each and every second. That’s — if my math language skills have not completely deserted me — 50 quadrillion calculations per second.

That would be the fastest supercomputer on earth, faster than the current champ at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which runs 16.32 petaflops.

And that makes my head hurt. Even more than an ice cream brain freeze.

Here’s the video:

Image credit: iFong/ShutterStock