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There are many of us who incline to be optimistic. And when the 401(k)s are drying up and the restaurants are shut down and the movies are delayed and basketball is canceled and schools are closed and the gyms are shuttered and we can't visit the old folks, some of us look all around and try to focus on the good. Then again, we are reminded of the book Candide and Voltaire's crazy professor, Pangloss. Let's not go that far. This is most definitely not the best of all possible worlds.

But then . . . .

CNN, of all networks, reported this week that the world's fastest super-computer--something called Summit, which was created by IBM--is on the covid-19 case. It looks and sounds like something between the WOPR from War Games and Watson from that Jeopardy! tournament. According to CNN, "Summit was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2014 for the purpose it's serving now--solving the world's problems."

Apparently the Summit computer is faster than your laptop. It has the power of 200 petaflops.

You read that right: 200 petaflops. It almost makes us want to know what a petaflop is.

This computer can compute at the rate of 200 quadrillion calculations per second. (According to sources, that's fast.)

Summit's handlers ran simulations of more than 8,000 compounds that could fight the virus. Or, as the experts put it, the computer ran simulations of those compounds "that could bind to the spike protein of the virus, which could limit its ability to spread to host cells." Summit came up with good guesses, and ranked the compounds.

What does that mean? We don't know. But all that matters is that somebody knows.

The computer, located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has found "77 small-molecule compounds, such as medications and natural compounds, that they suspect may be of value for experimental testing," according to a press release from the lab. "In the simulations, the compounds bind to regions of the spike that are important for entry into the human cell, and therefore might interfere with the infection process."

That, we understand.

"Summit was needed to rapidly get the simulation results we needed. It took us a day or two whereas it would have taken months on a normal computer," said Jeremy Smith, who's a computational molecular biophysicist at the lab who doesn't talk much like a computational molecular biophysicist. "Our results don't mean that we have found a cure or treatment for the coronavirus. We are very hopeful, though, that our computational findings will both inform future studies and provide a framework that experimentalists will use to further investigate these compounds. Only then will we know whether any of them exhibit the characteristics needed to mitigate this virus."

Most of that, we understand, too.

And now, testing. To find the magic combination among those lucky 77.

Thanks, HAL. Or Watson. Or Summit. We'll bet on Homo faber, man the toolmaker, to eventually find the right concoction. With the help of some petaflops.

Editorial on 03/21/2020

Print Headline: Hard to understand

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