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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue: September 16, 2002
Volume 38, Number 5

Fitzpatrick studies history of computing

By Michael Padilla

Anne 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.

Her research is made possible by a grant, “War by Numbers: Computers, Nuclear Weapons and the Arms Race,” from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Studies (STS) unit in the Behavioral, Social, and Economic Sciences Directorate.

Fitzpatrick’s 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 Fitzpatrick’s 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.

She says 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.

“As 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 have.”

Fitzpatrick 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.

“The 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.

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.

For the 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 world’s 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.

Many factors motivated Fitzpatrick to do this project. At an early age she was fascinated by rockets, space travel and especially nuclear weapons.

“I 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.

She began 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.

In graduate school she wanted to write her doctoral thesis on nuclear weapons issues from an insider’s 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.

“That 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 it’s important to stop and think that many Americans can afford a new computer every year while a quarter of the world’s population lives on less that $1 per day.

Fitzpatrick also works at Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Computing and Computational Sciences Division.

She specializes 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 of Minnesota.

She has lived in both Russia and Ukraine, and speaks fluent Russian. Fitzpatrick has a Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech.