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Mathematician Honored For Outstanding Contributions To High-Performance Computing

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November 2, 1998

By Jon Bashor,

BERKELEY -- Phillip Colella, a mathematician and leader of the Applied Numerical Algorithms Group at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), has been named as the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society's 1998 Sidney Fernbach Award, given each year to one person who has made "an outstanding contribution in the application of high performance computers using innovative approaches."

Presented during SC98, the annual conference on high-performance networking and computing, the award is named for one of the pioneers in the development and application of supercomputers for solving large computational problems. The award is sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Society. Colella will receive the award on Thursday, Nov. 12, at the conference in Orlando, Fla.

Colella, who has been a staff member of NERSC and the Computing Sciences Directorate at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 1996, is being recognized "For fundamental contributions in the development of software methodologies used to solve numerical partial differential equations, and their application to substantially expand our understanding of shock physics and other fluid dynamics problems," according to a letter from Doris Carver, president of the IEEE Computer Society.

Mathematics, Colella says, exerts a tremendous intellectual pull and is a "beautiful system" for solving theoretical problems with a very high level of precision. In fact, Colella says, much of modern math was invented as scientists looked for ways to learn more about mechanical systems, giving rise to such areas of study as fluid dynamics. But until the advent of computers, it was difficult to take this mathematical information and use it to accurately predict the behavior of specific physical events.

"Computing allows you to take this beautiful information and apply it to the real world," says Colella, who earned his bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees in math at UC Berkeley. "The computer 'reifies' mathematics -- it makes the abstract concrete."

Colella, who has worked primarily at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, now combines the fields of math and computing in the development of algorithms aimed at better understanding such complex problems as fluid dynamics. One key area of research is diesel combustion and Colella's group is creating more accurate computer models of the process with a goal of increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions.

The interior of an internal combustion engine is a hot, dirty environment for conducting experiments. Making small changes in the valves, cylinder head or piston to try to influence the combustion process can be expensive and time consuming.

Computer models, such as those being developed by Colella's group, can give researchers a virtual look into the complicated process of fuel and air intake, combustion and exhaust. Currently, combustion models can't entirely predict the combustion within an engine, but they are getting closer. Progress is made by breaking the problem down into smaller pieces, or subproblems, and tackling them individually.

"It's a complicated problem involving computer science, mathematics and physics," Colella said. "The simulations have to respect the mathematics and physics involved, yet be easy to use."

Colella's group is working with two of the nation's leading vehicle manufacturers to develop more accurate models of combustion processes. These models will require even greater computing resources, such as the 640-processor Cray T3E-900 supercomputer housed in NERSC at Berkeley Lab.

Those models are then compared with experimental data, matching predictions with actual results.

"Applying more computing power will allow us to incorporate more details and create better models," Colella says. "You can't just throw bigger computers at the existing models, though. You have to create better models."

The next generation of simulation and modeling technology will arrive within five years, Colella predicts. "Such models will allow engineers to explore many different design options at much less expense."

NERSC ( provides high performance computing services to DOE's Energy Research programs at national laboratories, universities, and industry. Berkeley Lab ( conducts unclassified research and is managed by the University of California.