Michael L. Norman: Traveling through the universe


San Diego Supercomputer Center's Michael L. Norman

When Michael L. Norman gazes upward at the nightly universe, he sees what first captivated him as a child.

“I spent every clear night looking at the universe with my telescope,” said Norman. “I thought it was fascinating. Since then, my whole career has been driven by that fascination.”

Now, as director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), he’s a highly credentialed computational astrophysicist who ponders ever deeper mysteries about the great beyond.

Another vast universe exists within walking distance of Norman’s office — that earthly universe is “Gordon,” UC San Diego’s inimitable supercomputer that analyzes untold billions of data each millisecond.

Originally dubbed “Flash Gordon,” Gordon was the first-ever supercomputer to incorporate flash solid-state devices into its memory system. First deployed in 2010, Gordon reigned supreme.

Or used to.

By January 2015, Gordon will be replaced by “Comet” — an even more advanced supercomputer that’s predictably faster, smarter, bigger, better than Gordon.

“Comet is all about computing for the 99 percent,” said Norman. “We’re ready to move into the next stage in the evolution of scientific inquiry.”

Norman, who became SDSC director in 2010 after a year as interim director, regards Gordon and Comet as supernumerary symbols of the center’s progress. He was instrumental in the two-year process to procure Gordon, a $20 million acquisition that further heightened SDSC’s national and global standing in predictive analytics and related disciplines.

He’s had an equally decisive role in bringing Comet to UC San Diego, the result of a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Comet will be capable of an overall peak performance of nearly two petaflops, or two quadrillion operations per second. A measure of a computer’s processing speed, one petaflop translates to one thousand trillion calculations per second.

Now double that.

Not only will Comet be capable of computing much larger projects, its vast capacity will enable a larger number of smaller ones, all performed simultaneously.

San Diego Supercomputer Center's Natasha Balac and Michael L. Norman

In recent years, such supercomputers have expanded into genomics, the social sciences, and economics, along with data mining and analysis in more traditional areas such as fraud detection in retail, financial services, health care, and pharmaceuticals.

“When you combine the mysteries of the universe with our tools of calculation, it’s like you never run out of questions,” said Norman. “You can constantly imagine more and more difficult and interesting calculations.”

Norman’s associate Natasha Balac serves as SDSC’s director of the Predictive Analytics Center of Excellence (PACE). In addition, she has taught the popular Data Mining courses at UC San Diego Extension for the past twelve years.

“We train, inform, and educate,” said Balac, who designed the original six-course extension program. “The idea is, we’re trying to close the gap between government, industry, and academia using predictive analytics.”

For one such project, PACE has partnered with the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE) and four public utilities to devise an optimal energy-distribution infrastructure with the goal of benefiting California ratepayers with higher efficiencies and lower energy rates.

PACE also has aligned with CleanTECH San Diego to develop a “Sustainable Communities” project, using a vast data infrastructure to connect the various physical infrastructures of downtown San Diego. These include electrical, gas, water, waste, buildings, transportation and traffic, along with their individual support systems.

In these projects and many others, Balac and her team design and analyze complex data mining projects that go way beyond “big data,” a term she regards as too limited.

“Here at SDSC, we’re not merely mining for data,” she said, “we’re mining for something valuable in that data, like gold dust — discovering the kind of knowledge and patterns and insights we didn’t have before.”

As for universal truths yet to be unraveled, Norman remains a stargazer who’s spent his entire professional life “traveling through the universe via supercomputer simulations and visualizations.”

The San Diego Supercomputer Center stands tall as the scientific bastion where, he says, “You get to create the imaginary telescope of your mind.”

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