Frequently Asked Questions
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FAQ toys, factoids, other stuff and trivia…
Million, billion, trillion, bazillion, squintillion, googolplex… What?
Numbers are important, they really, really do matter. In fact, numerical solutions are the only way the behaviour of climate systems’ chaos and complexity can even be approached or quantified. Dealing with the whole planet in global simulations, leads to some astronomical numbers in terms of the computing power required. Yet, big numbers are often way beyond humans’ material experience and just don’t make much sense. In recent news, “trillions” were bandied about like pocket change. Someone once said: “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money”… OK, so the way to appreciate big (and small) numbers is to compare it against another big thing that we understand, and to think about orders of magnitude.
What does a Zetta-class machine mean in relation to the earth? In your minds eye, imagine that each FLOP wasn’t some arithmetic operation, but instead printed a dollar bill. Now, a million, $1,000,000, in one-dollar notes has a volume of about a cubic metre (new bills stacked neatly) and weighs about a ton, and is the size of a fridge. Zetta would print pretty fast: in one second the whole planet would be covered, and we’d be over our heads in solid cash (about 2 metres deep). WOW! But that begins to make sense, right? We need many operations to be applied to the atmosphere in little parcels in every tick which all has to be done in much less than one second and over and over again… Are we loosing you now?! Well, in under two weeks Zetta would print the entire volume of the earth, but now that’s getting impossible to imagine (even when you’re used to “quantitative easing”, pleasing, teasing or whatever) — impossible even for the treasury secretary.
Perhaps what’s the most truly astounding ratio is that in well under a century of technological advancement, the programmable computer will have progressed from Zuse to Zetta, from 1 FLOPS (1938) to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 FLOPS (2016?). Obviously there’s plenty of scope for rapid improvement when we apply our ingenuity!
Yeah, and we were joking about bazillion, squintillion, and googolplex… But, OK to round things off, here’s a model world that took around 2 billion seconds (500,000 man hours) to construct: