I am returning from GridKA school, held annually at the KIT in Karlsruhe, where I co-hosted a two day workshop on installing OpenStack with Antonio Messina and Tyanko Alekseiev from the university of Zurich. (You can find the course notes and tutorials over on Github ). I don’t want to talk about the workshop so much (it was fun, out attendees were enthusiastic and we ended up with 8 complete OpenStack Grizzly clouds) as about the things that I experienced in the plenary sessions.
A bit of background on me: I joined SWITCH in April 2013 to work on the cloud. Before that, I had been self-employed, running my own companies, worked in a number of startups. I left academia in 1987 (without a degree) and returned to it in 2010 when I started (and finished) a Masters in Science. Early on, friends and family told me that I should pursue an academic career, but I always wanted to prove myself in the commercial world… Well, being a bit closer to Academia was one of the reasons I joined SWITCH.
Back to GridKA: Presenting at the workshop, teaching and helping people with a complex technical software is something I have done quite a bit over the last 20 years, and something I’m quite good at (or so my students tell me). Nothing special, business as usual so to speak.
There also was a plenary program with presentations from various people attending GridKA school. And although I only got to see a few of those due to my schedule, I was absolutely blown away by what I heard. Dr. Urban Liebel talked about microscopes in Life Sciences – the ability to automatically take pictures of thousands of samples and use image recognition algorithms to classify them. He told about some of the results they discovered (Ibuprofen is doing damage to kidneys in children and increases the risk of kidney cancer, something science didn’t know until recently) now that they can investigate more samples faster.
José Luis Vázquez-Poletti in his talk “Cloud Computing: Expanding Humanity’s Limits to Planet Mars” talked about installing meterological sensors on Mars and how to use cloud computing ressources to help pinpoint the location of those sensors, once they had been deployed on Mars (basically by just dropping them down on the surface – ballistic entry). By looking at the transitions of Phobos, the moon of Mars, they are able to determine the location of the landed sensor.
Bendedikt Hegener from CERN talked about “Effective Programming and Multicore Computing” in which he described the trials and tribulations the CERN programmmers have to go through to parallelize 5 million lines of code in order to make the code take advantage of multi-core computers.
There were several other talks that I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to attend. The point of all this?
During those talks it hit me, that the work these scientists are doing is creating value on a much deeper level, than what most startups are creating. By working on the methods to automatically take microscopic pictures and analyse them, and increasing the throughput, these people directly work on the improvments of our living conditions. While the Mars and CERN experiments don’t seem to have immediate benefits, both space research and high energy physics have greatly contributed to our lives as well. A startup that is creating yet another social network, yet another photo sharing site, all with the intent of making investors happy (by generating loads of money) just doesn’t have the same impact on society.
My work here in SWITCH doesnt’t really have the same impact but I think that the work building Cloud infrastructure can help some researchers out there in Switzerland achieve their work more easily, faster or cheaper. In which case, my work at least contributed in a “supporting act”. What more could one want?