Give a Humanist a Supercomputer …

… and you’ll be surprised what he or she can do with it. That’s what the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Energy figured. Last year, they staged a competition for “computationally intensive” humanities projects that would draw on the DOE’s High Performance Computing (HPC) resources at Nersc, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Was the gamble worth it? Yes, to judge by the results on display at the Coalition for Networked Information membership meeting, held in Washington, D.C., this week. Several scholars involved in the HPC competition reported on their supercomputing experiences. Among them were Gregory Crane, editor in chief of the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University, and David Bamman, a computational linguist with the project, which has been experimenting with computer-enhanced ways to mine a huge digital assembly of classical texts.

David Koller, of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, gave a nifty talk about creating digitized, 3-D models of culturally significant objects. Mr. Koller is a director, with Bernard Frischer, of the Digital Sculpture Project. As part of that work, Mr. Koller travels to museums and archaeological sites and takes hundreds of photographs of objects—one being the Laocoon sculpture at the Vatican museum—from every angle. Those “raw-scan data” then undergo a complex algorithmic alchemy (that’s the HPC part), converting the pictures into high-resolution images that can be viewed from all angles and deliver an amazing level of detail, down to individual chisel marks. To get the full effect, one needs ScanView, free software created at Stanford University that allows users to virtually examine images that would otherwise be off-limits because of their file sizes or licensing restrictions.

What Mr. Koller does would be impossible without high-peformance computing, he said, but scholars may be able to find what they need close to home. Many universities now have local HPC systems equal to the challenge. According to Mr. Koller, what’s really needed is more support for the human element—people who know how to help computers and humanities researchers talk to each other.

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