Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Mystery of Santa's Data Centers

In The Truth About Santa, my 2009 book on the scientific side of Christmas, I explained that one of the reasons St. Nick bases his operations up at the North Pole may relate to his reliance on a massive data center. To sum up: Santa uses flying robots to spy on kids; the volume of video data captured by these flying cameras is massive; only an enormous data storage and supercomputing facility would be capable of holding and processing all of that video and flagging naughty behavior. 

Facebook's data center in Prineville, OregonAs I understood it at the time, the problem with giant computing facilities is that they tend to overheat, so companies need to crank up the air conditioning to keep them cool and running properly. This, in turn, implied that Santa chose the North Pole in part to reduce his energy costs. Instead of operating expensive air conditioners he could simply open the windows and let the cool Arctic air flow in.

I was wrong. While reporting one of my recent stories, an in-depth look at energy efficient data centers, I learned that the best companies don't rely on AC at all. Instead, they allow their data centers - like the Facebook facility pictured here - to run as hot as 80 degrees. Even with the hot temperatures, the computer hardware inside performs just fine.

Since Santa only uses the best technology, it is safe to assume that his facilities don't require air conditioning either. Which makes me wonder if his data centers are based at the North Pole at all. If he doesn't need to cool them so drastically, they could be anywhere. Perhaps they are secretly staggered around the world, even in our own urban backyards.

And over the next few weeks, of course, they will be humming....

Monday, December 3, 2012

Swimming on a Jovian Moon

A long in the works article of mine on Jupiter's moon Europa has just been published in Discover Magazine, and it's available online here. The main subject of the piece, planetary scientist Britney Schmidt, was one of the more fascinating people I've ever met. She listens to heavy metal, feels incomplete if she misses SportsCenter, and absolutely will not stop until she finds the answers to scientific questions that are bothering her. I couldn't find room for this in the piece, but she's also a synthesete. I think Feynman saw numbers, or at least equations, in different colors, and maybe Nabokov as well. Schmidt says her brain mixes sound and smell. She says that certain people's voices have a taste. So, to her, the voice of one scientist - she wouldn't name him, for obvious reasons - tastes like vanilla butter cream.