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Stanford, tech execs unveil science center

Stanford hopes research will advance earthquake detection, oil exploration and predictions of the effects of global warming. Photos: Earth sciences at Stanford

Stanford University opened the doors Tuesday to a new computational earth science center, joined by project backer and alumn Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems.

The new center, called the Center for Computational Earth and Environmental Science (CEES), is an extension of Stanford's School of Earth Sciences and will house an interdisciplinary research program and new computing facility, equipped with Sun hardware and software.

Photos: Earth sciences at Stanford

The goal of the center is to tackle problems in geosciences, such as climate change, with better computational power for analysis, simulation and prediction of earth systems. Stanford's hope is that the research will advance earthquake detection, oil exploration and predictions of the effects of global warming.

As CEES Director Jerry Harris put it at the opening ceremony, the center is about "computer-driven science and science-driven computer design," meaning that CEES partners from industry and government will be able to learn from its work on how to improve the computational efficiencies of their own systems.

"Our goal is to build the capacity for large-scale computing" for research in earth and environmental science, Harris said. "We want to bring the best systems to bear on the world's most challenging problems."

The center is a partnership of Stanford's earth sciences school, the U.S. Geological Survey and private companies including Cisco Systems, 3DGO, Chevron and BP. As a founding member, Sun has contributed $3 million to the center's new high-productivity computing facility, including hardware and software such as its x64 (x86, 64-bit) and SPARC-based Sun Fire servers and the Solaris operating system. Cisco has donated $250,000.

Because it's an interdisplinary program, the center will also build on the intellectual capital within Stanford, drawing research from various areas of study, including geology and computer sciences.

Stanford President John Hennessy, who dedicated the center at the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building, said that the hardware is only a first step in figuring out how to write the software and algorithms to solve real-world issues around energy and water resources, environmental hazards and oil excavation.

"We will advance scientific computing by combining both disciplines," Hennessy said.

McNealy, who founded Sun with Andy Bechtolsheim while barely out of Stanford, said during the ceremony that one of Sun's goals is to "eliminate the digital divide without torching the planet." Because bringing computers to the world's population poses great environmental hazards, there needs to be a better system, a computing network, to reduce those risks, he said. Supporting CEES is a complement to that goal, he said, because it's about combining resources in industry, academia and technology, then sharing knowledge and computing power, and creating computing efficiency, to answer "some very big questions."

"Wouldn't you like to know when the next big one will hit?" McNealy asked.