Impossible Astronaut and Supercomputers in the Desert

By John Blyler, Editorial Director


The premier of a science fiction favorite and the start of a supercomputing competition all take place in a landscape rich in secret labs and alien sightings.

Have you ever noticed how coincidences and connections complement one another? It’s almost a “chicken and egg” relationship in terms of which comes first. Do seemingly unrelated, coincidental bits of information come first, sparking the imagination to make connections? Or do seemingly loosely coupled connections suggest a coincidental alignment at certain points in time?

Consider the following loosely coupled sequence of events. Last Saturday was the premier episode of the new science fiction season of Dr Who. The following Monday, the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced a new supercomputing website which highlights a competition taking place in New Mexico.

The Dr Who story line dealt with strange meetings with a lake-bound astronaut and aliens cowering in tunnels (see Figure 1). This episode – “The Impossible Astronaut” – was unique because it was the first time in the series’ 48-year history that an episode was filmed in the US, specifically in Utah. Together, the landscapes in Utah and New Mexico help form the Great Basin Desert, which some call the Navajoan Wilderness.
The Great Basin Desert shares the same mystic intonations as its neighbors; the Chihuahua, Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.


The sheer barrenness of these wastelands provides fertile ground for the imagination, from lost cities of gold and ancient petroglyphic carvings to UFO sightings. Interesting, these vast areas are also the hubs for some of the most hidden and high-tech facilities known to man, from Area 51 to secret military-university R&D operations stretching throughout all of these deserts.

Let’s return to the seemingly coincidental supercoming event in New Mexico, located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In stark contrast to the 130F temperatures of the outside desert, the inside of the LANL is maintained in the mid-60s. Such cave-like inside temperatures are needed to cool the monolith high-performance supercomputers which owe their existence to the world of semiconductor, chip and EDA innovation (see Figure 2).

During this one week in April, select middle- and high- school students have the “opportunity to work on the most powerful computers in the world…” Teams of students work throughout the year to complete science projects worthy to be run on the high-performance supercomputers.


Not surprisingly, past successful projects have come from computational problems in astronomy, geology, physics, ecology, mathematics, economics, sociology, and computer science. The one restriction is that the problem being addressed deals with a measurable “real world” rather than imaginary challenge.

Yet, it was probably the imaginary challenge from a sci-fi show like Dr Who that originally sparked the scientific and engineering interest of these young students.

There are strange things done in the desert sun by the men (and women) that moil for gold. (My apologies to Robert Service).

Is it by random chance that the intersecting paths of coincidence and connections and of science fiction and hard science meet in the vast, seemingly barren deserts of America?


John Blyler can be reached at: jblyler@extensionmedia.com