China has usurped the supercomputer crown from the United States. It may seem like just a day in the life--just another former glory of the United States falling to a rival nation. But, in the post-Cold War, Internet-era, this particular claim to fame comes with crucial bragging rights that can define the nation.
During the Cold War, the worth and power of the United States and the Soviet Union were measured based on their respective stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Actually launching a nuclear attack and annihilating the planet was obviously out of the question, but essentially the country with the most potential to obliterate the planet was the de facto winner of the pointless stalemate.
Like immature frat boys in a pissing contest, the two nations worked vigorously to best each other in all aspects of the space race and military prowess. Which nation could get into space first? Which could land on the moon first? Which nation had the fastest fighter jet in the world? The list goes on.
The supercomputer has emerged as the new measure of national testosterone in the post-Cold War era. The United States held the top spot with the Cray XT5 "Jaguar" at the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee. That supercomputer is capable of 1.75 petaflops per second performance.
China's Tianhe-1A supercomputer, located in Tianjin at the National Supercomputer Center, is the new leader, though, with performance measured at 2.57 petaflops per second. The Chinese supercomputer is nearly 50 percent faster than the Cray, and another Chinese supercomputer--the Nebulae--holds the number three spot.
The United States still owns 275 of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, but that number has dwindled slightly--falling from 282 just since June of this year. The United States is not sitting idly by and watching its dominance of the supercomputer arms race trickle away, though.
In fact, the United States isn't just planning on retaking the supercomputer crown from China with some meager 50 percent gain in performance. The United States is developing two supercomputer systems reported to be theoretically capable of 20 petflop performance. That is an increase in performance almost 1000 times greater than the Chinese Tianhe-1A.
Supercomputers are capable of modeling and calculating beyond human comprehension, and could one day unlock many of the mysteries of life and the universe around us. That said, the battle between nations is more about a digital Cold War between rival nations and the bragging rights of being the best just for the sake of being the best.