In February, Cray received a letter from Hugo, a 10th-grade student at John F. Kennedy Middle College High School in Norco, Calif. We receive many letters from people with a variety of questions or suggestions, so we can’t always respond, but the letter from Hugo was particularly intriguing. In the letter, Hugo writes:
“I am writing you this letter because of a request I have to solve this math equation,
Y = 259,496,785,246,945,100,035.25 * (204,596,735,436,300,431,333,445 ^
I showed the letter to Steve Scott, Cray’s CTO. Steve quickly became intrigued with the enormity of the problem and how best to respond. In a letter back to Hugo, Steve wrote:
“In fact, the answer to this equation will be a number with more than 1060 digits. There are more digits in the answer than there are atoms in our solar system! So there is no way to ever compute the answer exactly, or store the number in the computer’s memory, let alone print it out!”
While at first we thought we’d simply send the letter and a Cray shirt to Hugo, but we decided to go a step further in acknowledging his initiative. We contacted Hugo’s teacher, Mr. Steve Mucci, as well as the school principal, Ms. Sarah Ragusa, to obtain permission to surprise Hugo in class. Mr. Mucci and Ms. Ragusa were able to keep our visit a secret from Hugo but were able to tell his class about it (while Hugo was running an errand for the office).
I visited the classroom on the morning of Wednesday, May 18, bringing Steve’s letter, a video Steve made for Hugo and his class and some Cray goodies for his classmates. I talked to the class about supercomputers, about the history of Cray and what we look like today, and about some of the exciting work that scientists and engineers are doing today with supercomputing technology. I emphasized the importance of people who are interested in math and science – at Cray and with the wide variety of companies that use Cray systems. I also shared my personal career path from electrical engineer to applications engineer to marketer – showing that math and science open doors for you and provide a lot of various career paths. I encouraged Hugo and his classmates to continue to ask “big questions,” since that is how eventual breakthroughs in science happen.
Joining me on this visit was Brian Friesen, a researcher at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center in Berkeley and a user of the Cray supercomputer installed there. Brian gave the class insight on his educational journey and what it’s like to work at NERSC, and showed samples of some of the work being done at NERSC. Brian encouraged the students to find something they are passionate about.
Hugo continued to ask us “big questions” during our visit – like, could a supercomputer handle everyone in the world playing the video game ”Battlefield” all at the same time without crashing?
Hugo was truly surprised that Cray responded to his letter and in such a big way. We chuckled as Mr. Mucci told the class that we had come from Seattle – that planes were involved in this visit. Hugo asked a question about how we arranged this. He was quite shocked to learn that all of his classmates had known about it and had kept the secret! Everyone was excited to get some Cray “swag,” and the school graciously gave us some JFK Middle College goodies.
We hope Hugo and his classmates continue in their love of learning and that teachers like Mr. Mucci continue to inspire young minds to “think big.”
Letter from Hugo:
Response from Cray’s CTO, Steve Scott:
Additional photos and video: