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Computing in a chilly Beijing

Peking University campus

Peking University campus.

By James Dacey

Today is my first day in Beijing and boy am I glad I packed my winter coat. Despite the clear blue skies, it was just above freezing point as I arrived at the Beijing Computational Science Research Center (CSRC) this morning, with an icy wind bringing an added chill factor. I was with my IOP Publishing colleague Tom Miller as we were delivering a presentation about scientific publishing and journalism and our taxi driver decided that 2 km from the venue was as far as he fancied going. So a brisk walk later we arrived with chattering teeth in need of a thorough thaw.

Located a few kilometres north-west of Beijing’s centre, the CSRC is within the Zhongguancun hi-tech zone. The majority of buildings within the technology hub are occupied by commercial firms, and our icy walk took us past the impressive modern offices of Baidu and Lenovo among other companies. The CSRC, however, is focused primarily on the application of computational modelling to fundamental science research. Its seven divisions include physical systems, quantum physics & quantum information, and materials & energy.

Photo of the TH-2 supercomputer

Tom Miller and the TH-2 supercomputer.

Our host was Su-Huai Wei, who specializes in computational materials science and solid state theory. Wei gave us a tour of the building, which included the room containing the TH-2 High Performance supercomputer – a machine capable of performing calculations at 800 teraflops. It had the sci-fi look of other supercomputers I’ve seen in the past but with Chinese characters printed on the sides of the computing bank.

The centre opened in 2015 and now has 44 faculty members, 114 postdoctoral researchers and 80 students. Wei explained that one of the major aims of creating this hi-tech computing facility is to attract researchers with international experience. Indeed, he himself returned to work at the CSRC having spent the majority of his career working at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado in the US.

I’m writing this article now in the office of Richard de Grijs, a Dutch astrophysicist based at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA). He’s very fortunate to be based on the campus of Peking University, where the lakes and pagodas provide a beautifully serene setting (see picture above). I’ve been learning about a documentary he has been working on with producer Rene Seegers about the human history of astronomy within China. It will be available with English subtitles on YouTube within the next few months, so I will provide a link on this blog when it is available.

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