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Nov. 12, 2012 at 6:54 PM
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U.S. computer officially world's fastest

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Nov. 12 (UPI) -- The U.S. Department of Energy possesses the fastest, most powerful computer in the world, a semiannual ranking of computing systems around the world said.

The new titleholder is the Titan computer at the department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the Top500 listing announced at the SC12 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis in Salt Lake City.

Titan replaced the laboratory's Jaguar computer last month, which had ranked as the world's fastest computer on the Top500 lists in November 2009 and June 2010.

"The new Top500 list clearly demonstrates the U.S. commitment to applying high-performance computing to breakthrough science, and that's our focus at Oak Ridge," ORNL Director Thom Mason said. "We'll deliver science from Day One with Titan, and I look forward to the advancements the Titan team will make in areas such as materials research, nuclear energy, combustion and climate science."

Titan is a Cray XK7 system of 18,688 nodes, each with a 16-core AMD Opteron 6274 processor and an NVIDIA Tesla K20X graphics processing accelerator, and the computer has 710 terabytes of memory, an ORNL release said Monday.

Titan reached a speed of 17.59 petaflops -- quadrillion calculations per second -- in a benchmark test used to rank supercomputers on the Top500 list. Titan is capable of a theoretical peak speed of 27 petaflops while using approximately 9 megawatts of electricity, roughly the amount required for 9,000 homes.

Strange, carnivorous ocean sponge found

MOSS LANDING, Calif., Nov. 12 (UPI) -- A carnivorous sponge looking like a candelabra or harp has been discovered deep beneath the ocean surface off the coast of California, researchers say.

Marine scientists at Monterey Bay Research Aquarium Institute, writing in the journal Invertebrate Biology, said the harp sponge was first discovered by a remotely operated vehicle more than 2 miles below the surface.

"We were just amazed. No one had ever seen this animal with their own eyes before," Lonny Lundsten, an invertebrate biologist at the research institute, said.

Researchers later collected two examples of Chondrocladia lyra, and made video observations of 10 more, OurAmazingPlanet reported.

Barbed hooks covering the sponge's branching limbs trap and hold crustaceans brought into range by deep-sea currents, and the sponge then envelopes and digests its prey.

Researchers said it's likely the harp sponge evolved its multi-branch structure, looking something like a cross between a harp and a candelabra, to increase the area it could present to currents to capture more prey.

Warning issued on 'experimental' fracking

ERIE, Pa., Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Pennsylvania has opened its doors to fracking without doing the scientific research necessary to ensure the public's safety, a public health researcher says.

David Dausey of Mercyhurst University in Erie said Pennsylvania has become a mecca for oil and gas industry fracking operations.

"Pennsylvania has opened up its doors to fracking in ways that many other states in the United States have not," he said in a university release Monday.

"We don't know enough about the environmental and human health effects of fracking and, as a result, Pennsylvania has become the home of experimental fracking."

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a controversial means of extracting natural gas or petroleum from subterranean shale by using pressurized water with chemical to break open the shale formations.

Environmental groups claim fracking can result in air and water pollution and adverse human health effects.

"Until we have real scientific research about the environmental and human health effects of fracking, we should regard all current fracking practices as experimental," Dausey said, adding that people who live close to fracking sites have "every right to be concerned" about the potential health consequences of fracking.

There should be further research before fracking becomes more widespread, he said.

"Keeping the public safe should be our number one priority. It should take priority over profits, over jobs, over everything."

Climate change could threaten panda diet

EAST LANSING, Mich., Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Climate models show a threat to bamboo, the staple food of China's giant pandas, could put pressure on the already endangered species, researchers say.

Scientists from Michigan State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have made computer models of how changing climate may affect the species of bamboo that cover the forest floors of prime panda habitat in northwestern China.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, they say even the most optimistic scenarios show bamboo die-offs would effectively cause prime panda habitat to become inhospitable by the end of the 21st century.

"Understanding impacts of climate change is an important way for science to assist in making good decisions," Michigan researchers Jianguo "Jack" Liu said. "Looking at the climate impact on the bamboo can help us prepare for the challenges that the panda will likely face in the future."

The bamboo species studied only flowers and reproduces every 30 to 35 years, which limits its ability to adapt to changing climate and can spell disaster for a food supply, the researchers said.

If large areas of bamboo become unavailable, human development could prevent pandas from a clear, accessible path to the next meal source, they said.

"The giant panda population also is threatened by other human disturbances," researcher Mao-Ning Tuanmu said. "Climate change is only one challenge for the giant pandas. But on the other hand, the giant panda is a special species. People put a lot of conservation resources in to them compared to other species. We want to provide data to guide that wisely."

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