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The Handbook of Global Science, Technology, and Innovation by Andrea Filippetti, Daniele Archibugi

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Chapter 3 The International Race of Top Supercomputers and Its Implications

Kam Ki Tang and Thanh Quang Le

Introduction

In September 2013, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) achieved a landmark in space exploration. Its Voyager-1 spacecraft launched 36 years ago (September 1977), became the first human object to go beyond the Solar System.1 Voyager-1’s interstellar journey became a possibility when, back in 1961, Michael Minovitch solved the extremely difficult “three-body problem” in celestial mechanics. The problem had been described as one of the hardest in that field, and it had tested and “defeated” some of the finest scientists including Isaac Newton (Riley and Campbell 2012). Minovitch solved the problem with the help of a machine called the IBM 7090 – the fastest computer at that time.

The fact that a calculation machine assisted in solving a mathematical problem and, as a consequence, pushed the boundaries of human exploration beyond planet Earth, is a powerful demonstration of De Solla Price’s (1983) thesis of “instrumentality.” According to this thesis: “advances in instrumentation and experimental techniques have been of major importance in stimulating and enabling both radical theoretical advance in fundamental science, and radical innovations in practice application.” De Solla Price illustrates the idea of instrumentality using another cosmic example – the development of deep-dished concave lenses. Such lenses allowed Galileo to ...

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