Munger: ORNL gets chance to shine with delegation on hand

Posted on September 10, 2007

With Labor Day weekend looming and congressional business on hold for the moment, last Thursday was a perfect time for members of the Tennessee delegation to visit Oak Ridge National Laboratory, pose for a few pictures and relish the good things of science. It also was a chance to draw more attention to the recently passed America COMPETES Act, the legislation that's supposed to inject more life - and many billions of dollars - into the nation's science, math and education programs. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., put a lot of effort into the bill's passage, and he rightly received the credit during the ceremonies at ORNL. U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Science Committee, was also on hand, along with U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., whose district includes the lab and other federal facilities in Oak Ridge. Alexander was particularly impressed during a tour of ORNL's supercomputing facilities, where he got a stunning visual presentation on the research that's taking place, including studies of Alzheimer's drugs to learn how they work at the atomic level. The senator indicated he learned much more at Oak Ridge than he did when he was dispatched to Japan a couple of years ago to see the Earth Simulator, the supercomputer that grabbed the world's attention with its unprecedented capabilities and set off a race for bigger and better machines. "I went all the way over there, and it was just boxes," Alexander said. The ceremonies were among the first for Thom Mason to host since becoming director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and he was convincing in the role. Mason is a brilliant scientist and a confident administrator, and he comes across as both. He appeared to handle all the situations with ease, except perhaps for some protocol details. Billy Stair, the lab's communications chief, seemed out-and-out perturbed with Mason when the ORNL director lingered to talk with the press when he was supposed to get outside to say goodbye to the important guests. Stair raised his voice a few decibels to get Mason's attention from across an auditorium at the Spallation Neutron Source. The University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory were partners in a proposal that recently claimed the second-place prize in a major supercomputer competition hosted by the National Science Foundation. The program is pushing U.S. development of petascale computers for science research. Petascale means computers capable of a thousand trillion calculations per second. The UT-ORNL team will get a new computer, which will be housed at the Oak Ridge lab, but the $65 million grant was not nearly as big as the $208 million top award that went to a team led by the University of Illinois. Some reports indicated that the UT-ORNL team, which includes the Texas Advanced Computer Center and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, nearly won the top prize. And some folks obviously felt it should have. Asked about those reports, Mason was diplomatic: "Well, I don't know how the voting went because, of course, that's an NSF thing, but I know we had a very strong proposal." Did the UT-ORNL team deserve the Track I award? "We're very pleased with Track II, and we're going to be at the forefront of computing in 2011 with or without Track I," he said. Did UT-ORNL have the best proposal? "I know we had the best proposal," Mason said, "but I know there also were some other strong proposals out there."