studies history of computing
C. Fitzpatrick, instructor for the UNM-Los Alamos Computer Science
Department, is doing something no one else has done before.
She is providing a comparative history of scientific computing
in the United States and the former Soviet Union as originally
driven by the demands of nuclear weapons science.
is made possible by a grant, War by Numbers: Computers,
Nuclear Weapons and the Arms Race, from the National Science
Foundations Science and Technology Studies (STS) unit
in the Behavioral, Social, and Economic Sciences Directorate.
research will also examine how information technology has evolved
and will continue to develop into the early 21st century. The
goal of the grant is to produce a manuscript tentatively titled,
The Simulation Revolution, scheduled for late 2004
or early 2005. UNM-LA is jointly supporting the project and
will manage the grant and support Fitzpatricks international
travel necessary to complete research for the manuscript. This
includes visits to the former Soviet Union, United Kingdom and
Japan. Computing is now a central means of inquiry into
the natural world, ubiquitous everywhere from astrophysics to
complexity studies to molecular biology, yet we understand very
little about both its history and the present impact it is having
on the way science is conducted, she said.
wartime fission modeling efforts at Los Alamos carried out on
desk calculators and punched card machines initiated large scale
number crunching efforts aimed at solving extremely difficult
problems in physics.
computers became digital and more powerful during the Cold War,
Los Alamos emerged as a leader in high-performance computing
and was for many years on the cutting edge, she says.
It is important to emphasize this publicly because a lot
of newer scientific fields such as complexity and others came
out of these pioneering efforts. Los Alamos is and was more
than just a nuclear weapons factory, which is one of the biggest
misconceptions my colleagues in academia and much of the public
says, of course, academic and commercial computing, and the
software industry also increasingly have influenced the evolution
of computer technology, its users, and the course of scientific
practice, and not just in the United States.
Soviet Union treated computing in a very different way than
was the case here, given that commercial for-profit computing
was antithetical to communism and other factors. Soviet computer
science generally like many Soviet scientific fields took on
a more theoretical character than the Americans and they
made some remarkable achievements, she says.
when looking at American and Soviet programs in parallel one
gains not only a wider, more informed perspective on history,
but also the realization that of all the victories claimed by
the United States at the end of the cold war, computational
power was the most important.
21st century, it is crucial to sort out as clearly as possible
the role that computing will play, she says. At present, Japan
claims to have the worlds fastest supercomputer in Yokohama.
The Russians have no domestic computer industry and about 80
percent of all software sold is pirated. Much of American software
and low-end computing is for entertainment purposes.
motivated Fitzpatrick to do this project. At an early age she
was fascinated by rockets, space travel and especially nuclear
remember the furor over Three Mile Island when I was still a
child, and the duck-and-cover drills even as late as third grade,
when we hid lined up in the school hallways with faces to the
wall and hands locked behind our heads, pretending that Griffiss
Air Force Base, nearby, had been hit by the Soviets. I wanted
to know why nuclear energy and technology was both wonderful
and dangerous, and why my father, a U.S. Marine who had fought
in the Pacific during the second world war, vehemently insisted
that Fat Man and Little Boy had saved his life and therefore
mine, she recalls.
taking Russian in eighth grade, and fell in love with the language
and culture. Her family did not have the means to send her on
any kind of foreign exchange program in high school or college,
so she had to wait to begin working abroad.
school she wanted to write her doctoral thesis on nuclear weapons
issues from an insiders point of view. Through a meeting
at a conference she ended up spending three years as a student
at Los Alamos and got to know people who taught her about nuclear
weapons and supercomputing.
experience began to open my eyes to the complexity of technology,
proliferation, international tensions and other global issues
such as the so-called digital divide, she said, adding
that its important to stop and think that many Americans
can afford a new computer every year while a quarter of the
worlds population lives on less that $1 per day.
also works at Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Computing
and Computational Sciences Division.
in information technology, national security, and international
affairs. Prior to Los Alamos, she was a research faculty member
at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and
is the former associate director of the Charles Babbage Institute
for the History of Information Technology at the University
lived in both Russia and Ukraine, and speaks fluent Russian.
Fitzpatrick has a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from