In a recent invited essay for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), which appeared in the March 2008 issue of SIAM News, I wrote about the power of computing as an intellectual amplifier and the beauty of computing as an illuminator of truth. Elements of the essay were adapted from my July 2003 and May 2004 testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology on the status of high-performance computing.
The essay opens with a quotation from the poet William Blake ("Tiger, tiger burning bright") …
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
... to illuminate the power of silicon-based (sand) computing to plumb aspects of biology (the genetics of wildflowers) and the large-scale structure of the universe (cosmological models and infinity in the palm of your hand). More broadly, the essay touches on the generality of computing as an enabler of scientific discovery in diverse disciplines, allowing us to explore new phenomena, evaluate complex theories and analyze scientific data.
As I noted in the essay, this generality is extraordinary in the history of science, rivaled only by the written word and mathematics. Powerful new telescopes advance astronomy, but not materials science. Powerful new particle accelerators advance high-energy physics, but not genetics. In contrast, computing and computational models advance all of science and engineering, because all disciplines benefit from high-resolution model predictions, theoretical validations, and experimental data analysis.
As new scientific discoveries increasingly lie at the interstices of traditional disciplines, computing and computational models are the enabler of research integration. As computational and computer scientists, we are on the vanguard of a new future, where computing becomes fully synonymous with scientific discovery and computational models provide scientific truth in appealing and beautiful ways.
Truth and beauty, beauty and truth: as I recall, John Keats also had a few words to say on this topic. The universe in a grain of sand is here, in ways neither Blake nor Keats could have imagined.