Two donations totaling $20 million will enable Stony Brook University to harness supercomputers and perhaps find the "proverbial needle in the haystack" to solve some of society's most complex problems, the school announced Monday.
The Institute for Advanced Computational Science will marry high-performance computers that can run billions of equations per second with people who can design algorithms to analyze massive loads of data. The new center would take an interdisciplinary approach, delving into an array of problems, anything from minimizing car pollutants to creating new pharmaceuticals.
"We're trying to get down to the level of an atom . . . and basically compute what is happening in ways that we were never able to do before," said Dennis Assanis, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. "We really want to focus it on high-impact problems that can have a huge contribution to society."
The institute will start this year with a recruited staff made possible by the funds, half from an anonymous contributor and half from the Simons Foundation, whose board is chaired by hedge fund billionaire James Simons, of East Setauket, once a math professor at the university.
Robert Harrison, a high-performance-computing expert, has been tapped as director for the institute and also the Computational Science Center at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton. Currently, he's at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where he heads the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences.
The institute is being created at a time when the pace of scientific breakthroughs has been slowed by the capacity of most research computers and humans, Harrison said.
Even when scientists believe they're on to something, he said, "the solution is so complex that people don't attempt it."
But computational science can help find the "needle in the haystack in a reasonable time" and makes experimentation much less risky, Harrison said.
The new center will collaborate with the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University Hospital, officials said.
"By joining our efforts, we are able to move farther and faster than each of us could separately," said Reinhold Mann, the laboratory's associate director for environment and life sciences.
University president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said the gift and the new institute "marks the successful culmination of our quest to become a national player in the race to harvest the technology of high-performance computing for scientific research."