IBM's super computer, called Summit, is hard at work on the coronavirus pandemic.

Using the petaflops to fight the virus

While reading all sorts of information about the behavior of the coronavirus, which is a scary thing to do, I came upon a magazine article about one of the many hunts for an effective treatment. It’s being done by IBM’s supercomputer named Summit.

This computer, says the article, can do 200 quadrillion calculations per second.

Now, I admit that my mind is easily boggled, but that boggles my mind almost to numbness. A quadrillion is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a number equal to one followed by 15 zeroes.

Mathematics has never been one of my strong points. Some of my teachers at Northeast High School back in the 1940s would probably have attested, if asked, that I was singularly lacking in any strong points, though that’s beside the subject.

But sometimes, as I read about modern science, there is a tingle of suspicion in the back of my mind that these hotshot computer jockeys of the current age might, if my brain had legs, be pulling one.

I make this statement because, I find, they have named the performance of one quadrillion calculations a petaflop.

They announce with presumably straight faces that the IBM Summit supercomputer achieved the calculation power of 200 petaflops per second in its search for a drug that would counteract the coronavirus.

Chugging away at that excessive multiple petaflop speed, the magazine reports, the supercomputer ran simulations of more than 8,000 drug compounds to see if they might effectively stop that coronavirus from infecting host cells. It identified 77 possible candidates.

I presume that, even as you read this, further studies are being conducted to see if any of the identified substances are an antidote for the lethal behavior of our currently rampaging virus.

I don’t know at this writing whether the Summit computer will do the further investigating, or of that will be done elsewhere. This is written a couple of days before publication, and I presume that the Summit is at this moment busily pumping out lots of petaflops, looking for chemicals that can combat coronavirus.

I find that this supercomputer OLCF-4, known as Summit to its friends, abides at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. As of November 2019, its 200 petaflops per second make it the fastest supercomputer in the world.

If you’re picturing in your mind a gigantic box with a lot of dials and blinking lights all over it, think again, and think bigger. This machine is said to cover the space of two basketball courts, and has 136 miles of cables. Its cabinets, gear and whatnot weigh more than 340 tons.

Summit has already been used to track down human traits that lead to drug addiction, and has created climate simulations that help predict the weather.

According to the computer wranglers at Oak Ridge, if every person on earth completed one calculation per second, it would take the world’s population 305 days to do what the Summit can do in one second.

Don’t ask me how they figured that out, but if you have a device like the Summit computer, I guess a statement like that is possible, and I know that nobody could give them an argument.

So maybe the Summit crew can figure out what to do to get the world back to normal again. They may have the petaflops do it.

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at

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