Sunday, February 17, 2008

Things I Love about My Job

I love the work I do for a living. Okay, so the excessive number of PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, and Word documents I have to create and/or edit in order to impress Important People -- I could do without. But the science -- that is exciting stuff!

In my job, I work with power users of our supercomputers to get their codes up and running on the big machines. Depending on what the project PI wants, I just help them get started, or I get deeply involved as a member of the development team, or anything in between. These are people who have allocations of millions of CPU-hours, and run big codes that simulate scientific processes that are generally either impossible or too expensive or dangerous to do in the lab.

For example, we have users who simulate supernovae. As I say when I give tours, you can't simulate a supernova in the lab, or if you did, no one would live to tell about it. You also can't go check one out "in the field," because it's (hundreds or thousands of) light-years away and by the time you got there a) you'd be dead, and b) the event would be over. Furthermore, even if you did get there in time, a supernova is... shall we say... inhospitable to human life. So the only thing that astrophysicists can do is take the observations they can make from earth and near-space, combined with their knowledge of the laws of physics, and simulate supernovae on a computer. And there is so much physics involved that these computations require the use of thousands of CPUs for days at a time.

I don't work with the astrophysicists; I work with chemists and nuclear physicists. The nuclear physicists are my new project, so I don't know that much about what they do. But I do know what the chemists are doing, because I've been working with them since I came here as a postdoc.

One of the things they're studying is catalysis. A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction but is not used up by the chemical reaction process. The production of ninety percent of commercially-produced chemicals involves catalysis at some stage or another. You may have heard of the catalytic converter in your car's exhaust system, which converts toxic chemical byproducts of combustion into less toxic chemicals.

From what I understand, the discovery of most catalysts has been more-or-less serendipitous. Somebody accidentally contaminates a reaction, and discovers that the desired chemical reaction still occurs and actually goes faster! But it's inefficient, expensive, and possibly even dangerous to make discoveries in this way. If we instead simulate catalysis on a computer, we can be more systematic about it, and try a bunch of different catalyst candidates for a given reaction, without having to worry about safety or pollution. Then, we can pick the top-performing candidates, and actually try them out in the lab.

Something I really love about this job is the fact that I get to work on projects that make important breakthroughs in many different fields of science. I don't know much more than I've just described about catalysis, yet my work is instrumental in the true experts on catalysis learning even more about it.

Sometimes, the day-to-day stuff, such as tracking down a bug, or figuring out why the code doesn't compile, or why it gives incorrect answers, can be a real drag. But seeing the bigger picture is what makes all that boring stuff worthwhile.

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