5 Ways Supercomputers Help Advance Science

Supercomputers are helping scientists simulate scientific processes, make predictions and create data-based solutions, tackling the biggest scientific questions one calculation at a time.

Mapping the human brain

Current biology textbooks will tell you that the brain works based on the firing of neurons and the movement of neurotransmitters across synapses. But how is all this hardware wired together?

Constructing a map of the brain could take the lifetimes of many scientists, as the brain has more connections than the Milky Way has stars. But thanks to supercomputers, this timeframe will soon be dramatically shortened. An exascale supercomputer named Aurora 21 is expected to be deployed at the Argonne National Laboratory in the US by 2021, running one quintillion operations in parallel—roughly similar to the processing power of the human brain.

Scientists plan to use the Aurora 21 to piece together millions of two-dimensional images and reconstruct the entire brain in three dimensions. This will create a comprehensive map of neural connections, known as a connectome.

Instead of stopping at one brain, scientists could also map multiple brains and compare them to learn about how connectomes vary between different individuals—between an adult and a baby, for example, or between adults trained in different skills. Such analyses could also could shed light on the as-yet mysterious processes that underpin human learning, behavior and psychiatric disorders.

Brenda obtained her MSc in Science Communications from the University of Sheffield, where she studied the possibility of gender bias in written forms of science communication. She is on a lifelong journey to bridge the communications gap between scientists and the public, and hopes to do this as a science and technology writer at Asian Scientist Magazine.

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