Berkeley Lab

Katie Antypas: What’s in a (Supercomputer) Name?

hopper-kaWhenever we deploy a new supercomputer at NERSC (the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center), we give that system a name, which is how we refer to the system and also how users remotely log in. At NERSC we’ve always named our supercomputers after famous scientists. Providing high-end supercomputing systems and services to our broad scientific user base is our highest priority, and naming our systems after esteemed scientists reflects our priorities.

The process for naming systems has varied over the years. Currently, we solicit names from NERSC staff members. Then the procurement team for a particular supercomputer takes a deeper look and narrows down the selection. Finally, the list of names is sent to the NERSC Division Director for a final decision.

Over the years, NERSC has named supercomputers after a diverse group of scientists: Marie Curie, Glenn Seaborg, Euclid, Joseph Jacquard, Laura Bassi, Luis Alvarez, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Grace Hopper, Bhaskara, and, most recently, Gerty Cori. In 2009 we were installing one of our smaller systems, an IBM iDataPlex. In thinking about names, I realized that NERSC had never had a computing system named after an African-American scientist. To our list of potential names I added “Carver,” for George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist and inventor born into slavery in the 1860s. The name had support from NERSC staff members, and Carver ended up being selected. (And, quite honestly, it didn’t hurt that it was easy for our users to spell!)

A year or so later, NERSC was hosting some students from a high school in Richmond. It was our typical high school tour, where I give the students a presentation on NERSC and supercomputing and then take them on a tour of the machine room to see the computers. This was a particularly rowdy bunch of students who didn’t seem that interested in supercomputing, so I was having trouble keeping their attention.

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As part of its community outreach efforts, NERSC regularly gives tours of its supercomputing facility to students from local high schools; Antypas led a tour for this group from Oakland Tech.

I was trying to engage the students by talking to them about our flagship supercomputer “Hopper,” named after computing pioneer Grace Hopper, which at the time was one of the fastest systems in the world. The kids were having none of it, preferring to talk and laugh amongst themselves. Then I flipped to the next slide, which described the Carver system and included an old black and white photo of George Washington Carver. The Carver system was much smaller, just a fifth the size of the dominating Hopper system, but nevertheless the room became quiet. I had caught the students’ attention, and from that point on they listened.

To me this was an important lesson: we might believe we have the most interesting topic in the world, but if we can’t relate it to our audience, our message is lost. Naming our system after a famous African-American scientist was a way to relate to our student visitors from Richmond, which has a large African-American community. It’s what gave me the opportunity to engage with them about how computing is helping solve some of the world’s most pressing problems in climate change and energy. It’s what allowed me to explain how to build a career in science. And after the presentation, a few students approached me and asked if there were internship opportunities available at NERSC. I realized that if we can show a student that a scientist looks like him or her, and a student can relate to a scientist, I have made a difference in that student’s perspective.

Berkeley Lab has made a commitment to diversity and inclusion because we know from numerous studies that diverse teams are higher performing than homogenous teams. In the technology and scientific fields in particular, the number of underrepresented minorities is especially low, and so we have a responsibility to reach out to the communities that are not represented. We also realize that even small gestures like naming a system after a particular scientist can help make our field of Computing Sciences more inclusive.

-Katie Antypas, Services Department Head, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC)

Have a story to tell for the Panorama series? Email communications@lbl.gov.

Comments

  1. Jacqueline Scoggins says:

    Just my 2 cents. I do not really like the wording in this article. Using the word like “rowdy” to me is not as professional as I believe we should be. I think it would have been better to say something to the affect “That the information presented was not capturing the attention of the audience until I presented something they could relate to. Before the connection was made their attention was not on my presentation but on each other with personal side conversations, etc”. Speaking about kids in an article and stating the school from which they are from and calling them “rowdy” is not really tactful. I am not sure when this article was written but our choice of words can also impact the return of people to our center. If the school felt that LBNL thought their kids were “rowdy” are they welcomed back? or are they not invited because of their past behavior.

    If this article is related to diversity and inclusion the words in my opinion should have reflected that as well.

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