The year was 1945, the year I was born. That in itself is of great significance to me. However, it was a momentous year in history. World War II came to its merciful end and the development of the first electronic computer – the ENIAC—was nearing completion. At a post-war Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), mathematician Stanislaw Ulam envisioned the possibilities of reviving statistical techniques that would have a huge impact on science and technology research today. (Read the history of Stanislaw Ulam in the special edition of Los Alamos Science No. 15, 1987.)
Fifteen years earlier, a too-good-to-believe method to predict experimental results by statistical sampling techniques rather than using differential equations had been used by Enrico Fermi while studying neutron transport. Fermi used his new method to mystify his colleagues with unbelievable accuracy of experimental results. This new prediction method was in its infancy.
By the late 1940s, Ulam was so intrigued with the ENIAC and the increased computing power it offered, he soon realized that Fermi’s computational methods were now appropriate. He began to use random statistical sampling to gain insight into phenomena for which there’s no obvious method of exact analysis. John von Neumann recognized the potential in Ulam’s techniques and championed his effort. What we now know as the Monte Carlo method was introduced. (Read more about the Monte Carlo method in OSTI’s January 2013 Science Showcase “...Read more...
by Walt Warnick and Sol Lederman
While federated search is a core technology that OSTI employs to tackle challenges of sharing knowledge, the technology isn't perfect. OSTI aggressively uses federated search because it does what no other search technology can do--inexpensively making dozens of non-Googleable databases searchable via a single query. Two nagging limitations of federated search are that it can take 30 seconds to execute a search--which seems slow in the digital age--and hit lists are not exhaustive.
To drive progress, we at OSTI are constantly striving to design affordable information systems that work as well as we can make them. We call this the "art of the possible." At the same time, we confidently recognize that tomorrow's information technology will make our systems work better. By deploying first-of-a-kind systems, we not only advance our mission, we also call attention to the need for new technology to address our limitations. OSTI thus makes an important contribution to technological progress, even if it is not OSTI itself that develops tomorrow's technology. By pushing the state-of-the-art today, we highlight needs and hasten the arrival of tomorrow's information technology.
History shows that an unwillingness to be deterred by the limitations of the day leads to ultimate success. Consider the case of the first general purpose electronic computer, ENIAC, unveiled in 1946: