Adam Simpson, right, and Robert French, left, take visitors through the steps of operating Tiny Titan at an exhibit at the American Museum of Science and Energy.

Adam Simpson, right, and Robert French, left, take visitors through the steps of operating Tiny Titan at an exhibit at the American Museum of Science and Energy.

OLCF’s student-friendly parallel computer becomes interactive display at Oak Ridge museum

Tiny Titan, the portable parallel computer designed for students and the general public by staff at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), a US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility, is the subject of a new exhibit at the American Museum of Science and Energy (AMSE) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Funded by DOE, AMSE was established in 1949 as the American Museum of Atomic Energy. The name changed in the 1970s, and today AMSE displays exhibits on both the historical significance of Oak Ridge as a Manhattan Project site and the modern science and energy research taking place at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the work conducted at other sites in Oak Ridge.

“We’re in the process of developing new exhibits for the entire museum,” said David Moore, AMSE director. “We want to continue to build on the heritage of Oak Ridge as well as bring the modern lab into the museum.”

Luckily one of ORNL’s most advanced tools for scientific discovery—the 27-petaflop Titan supercomputer—has a museum-friendly counterpart in the educational Tiny Titan machine. Titan contains tens of thousands of central processing units and graphics processing units that work together to increase parallelism, or the number of computations that can be run simultaneously (up to 27 quadrillion calculations per second in Titan’s case). Tiny Titan mimics this computing architecture in a simple, inexpensive design for learning purposes.

“Tiny Titan uses an interactive, visual simulation to show how multiple computers can work together to speed up the same scientific problem,” said Robert French, OLCF staff scientist and one of the creators of Tiny Titan.

Built from nine $35 Raspberry Pi processors, Tiny Titan visually demonstrates how parallel computing works. Each processor—called a node when it is part of a network of processors—is a different color that matches colored particles on a screen connected to the computer.

A Tiny Titan machine runs continuously in the exhibit with written and video instructions guiding visitors through the basic steps required to operate the computer. Users are instructed to turn on nodes in succession to demonstrate that the computing power rises as the number of activated nodes increases. If only a red node is on, the screen shows only red particles that are moving slowly. When red, orange, and blue nodes are activated, the particles are divided into the three colors and move faster. The program moves significantly faster when all nine nodes are activated. The machine also has features that allow users to explore basic principles of parallel programming.

By viewing the full exhibit, visitors can also learn more about the Titan supercomputer at ORNL and how researchers are using it to solve complex scientific problems through simulations of physical, biological, and chemical systems and large-scale data analysis.

The Tiny Titan exhibit is one of three new exhibits in the central museum space, alongside an exhibit on ORNL’s contributions to powering the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn and a neutron exhibit that describes the particle used to image materials at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS).

The exhibit opened a little over a month ago and is already popular with visitors, Moore said. The Tiny Titan, Cassini-Huygens, and neutron exhibits are bringing new visibility to the museum, which has renewed its mission to reach out to the community, expand membership and activities, and develop future exhibit renovations.

A long-time Smithsonian Affiliate Museum, AMSE became a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Affiliate Museum this past year and has launched a number of new public programs. The museum hosted the world premiere of Alvin Weinberg, a documentary on the nuclear scientist who was ORNL’s first laboratory director, and the museum is exploring ways to introduce cutting-edge technologies like robotics and three-dimensional printing into exhibits and programs.