A new kind of distributed system

An interesting example of the trend towards distributing computing power among many different devices is a proposed new radio telescope, called the square kilometre array.  Two possible sites are being considered: one in South Africa  and one in Australia.  The Guardian has a nice graphic showing how the South African location would work.  While the numerous individual units that comprise the array are much more complex and specialised than anything you’d see in your local personal computing shop, the principle still applies that it makes sense to use a lot of devices linked together.  It’s significant that the decision on the location will have  a lot to do with the economic geography of the area.

Radio  astronomy is about understanding some of the fundamentals of the universe, which perhaps makes it as ‘pure’ as science can get.  While the square kilometre array will be implemented somewhere in the southern hemisphere, its project development office is in Manchester and associated with the long-established Jodrell Bank centre.  While the square kilometre array will be sited in a huge sparsely populated area to minimise radio interference, Sir Bernard Lovell and his colleagues, who built the Jodrell Bank observatory in the 1950, looked for a relatively empty swathe of Cheshire countryside for the same reason.  Their rivalry with scientists working in Cambridge, in similar areas of research, is sometimes cited as an example of how competition in research can be beneficial.  Today, visitors to Jodrell Bank are asked to switch their mobile phones off to ensure radio silence.  The Lovell telescope remains unusual (possibly unique) in being both a grade 1 listed building and a scientific instrument in active use.


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