The Mega Foundation

In the News

November 30, 2004

The Cell
    You and I began to follow IBM's, Sony's, and Toshiba's plans to create a 2005 teraflops chip set for home computers back in 2001, with follow-ups in 2003 and 2004. Now, it's hit the mainstream press (IBM, Sony and Toshiba preview Cell processor, Details emerge on Cell processor). The first application will be, as previously stated, in a graphics-content workstation that will be able to crank out 16 teraflops, putting among the world's ten fastest present-day supercomputers! Of course, this will be for highly parallel, graphcs processing, but still... 
    Immanent in the concept of The Cell is the idea of the computer utility that will permit distributed computing on demand over a very wideband Internet connection. (Just how soon this will happen is good question. The data transfer rates for teraflops computing boggle the imagination. However, for local area networks, the Cell concept may fit better sooner than it can over the Internet.)
    Massively parallel processing is a technological strategy that has been utilized for several decades. Still, putting on a chip or a few chips is a major breakthrough. IBM/Sony/Toshiba have fallen back to the use of 90-nanometer design rules for the launch of the Cell next year, rather than the 65-nanomter technology they had initially touted. Still, that's perfectly respectable for openers. It will be 2006-2007 before the kinks are ironed out of 65-nanometer production, even though Intel plans to introduce 45-nanometer chips in 2007. (Most of the rest of the world will be moving to 65-nanometer fabs by 2006-2007.)
    One implication of this is what this might mean for Apple Computer Company. I could imagine Apple possibly  introducing a Cell-based PowerPC by this time next year, with delivery scheduled for 2006. (This would depend upon how compatible OS-X would be for this type of computing.) But we'll see.

Armageddon in the Stars?
    Another interesting topic is one advanced by Steve Coy. Steve drew attention to the announcement a week ago that a relatively small black hole "weighing" about 1,300 solar masses has been discovered that is approaching the the massive (3,000,000 solar masses) black hole at the center of our galaxy. Right now, the smaller black hole is about 1.5 light-years away from the galaxy's central black hole, and closing at about 280 kms./sec.... about 0.1% of the speed of light. At that rate it would take more than 1,500 years for the smaller black hole to make contact with the larger black hole. Of course, it will accelerate as it falls deeper into the larger black hole's gravitational well. Even so, it will be centuries before the two black holes get within handshaking range of each other. The question arises: what hapens when two black holes collide? The larger black hole has a radius of about 18,000,000 kilometers, while the smaller black hole would have planetary proportions. Given a 36,000,000-kilometer diameter for the larger black hole, an intercept would be entirely possible. It would seem as though black holes couldn't give up any energy when they amalgamate, since anything falling into them has already given up virtually all its energy. However, the smaller black hole is dragging along seven stars weighing between 5 and 10 solar masses apiece. If these stars were to suddenly be converted to energy, there would be enough energy to have powerful effects even at the Earth's distance from the galactic center (30,000 light-years). A lot would depend upon how rapidly these stars were converted into hard radiation. But fortunately, we don't have to worry about this for several centuries yet. (Someone dug in underground wouldn't be directly affected by such a catastrophe, but surface vegetation is critical to our long-term survival.)
    This raises the question of other kinds of stellar armageddon that could be generated by a nearby supernova in our galaxy, or by any other massive flood of energy. This article, coming on Thursday, warns of that possibility:

    "A paper presented earlier this year by Adrian Melott of the University of Kansas Department of Physics and Astronomy, suggests a mass extinction that occurred during the late Ordovician period, about 440 million years ago, could have been caused by a GRB. Due to expected severe depletion of the ozone layer, intense solar ultraviolet radiation would result from a nearby GRB, Melott wrote. Some of the patterns of extinction and survivorship at this time may be attributable to elevated levels of UV radiation reaching the Earth. In addition, a GRB could trigger the global cooling which occurs at the end of the Ordovician period that follows an interval of relatively warm climate. Intense rapid cooling and glaciation at that time, previously identified as the probable cause of this mass extinction, may have resulted from a GRB. A discussion of such effects is hardly academic, because there is at least one nearby star that might be big enough to collapse into a black hole someday. Betelgeuse, located about 400 light-years away and occupying the constellation Orion's right shoulder - and easily visible in the sky in the fall and winter in the northern hemisphere -- is a red giant more than 600 times wider than the sun. If the two switched places, Betelgeuse's surface would swallow up Earth and the inner planets and reach almost to Mars. Though a relatively young star, Betelgeuse also is aging very rapidly. The sun has an estimated remaining life expectancy of 4 billion or more years, but Betelgeuse may not make it through the next 5 million. As red giants do, it is consuming its nuclear fuel so fast it will not be able to resist the pull of gravity much longer. When that happens, Earth-based observers will know, because Betelgeuse will destroy itself in a supernova explosion, which will be visible here even in daylight. The question is whether Betelgeuse has enough mass to collapse into a black hole and cause a gamma-ray burst."

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