Kasthuri brought with him automated methods he developed for efficiently mapping the brain. A diamond knife with an edge only five atoms thick cuts 50-nanometer-thin slices of human, mouse or even octopus brain, which float away on water to a conveyer belt that takes them sequentially beneath the gaze of an electron microscope.
“You look at Bobby’s setup, it’s like somebody slicing cheese at the deli,” said Michael Papka, SM’02, PhD’09, director of the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility and professor of computer science at Northern Illinois University. “It’s not the world that computer scientists normally work with, it’s soft squishy things. I find it a fascinating pipeline.”
That’s the easy part. The Theta supercomputer at Argonne clocks out at 11.69 petaflops—between 11,000 and 12,000 million million operations per second. It’s typically used for processing particle physics data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or running models of universal expansion that assist the search for dark matter. Kasthuri’s data, Papka said, is beyond the capabilities of this world-class machine; the data has to be simplified, or downscaled, before it can be analyzed.
“Bobby talks about the number of neurons and number of galaxies, how complexity-wise they’re roughly the same,” Papka said. “Actually, the brain’s probably even more complex.”
But the close relationship between the University and Argonne provides a unique location to untangle this knot.
“At most other universities, I’d just have to give up this idea,” Kasthuri said. “Even a small part of a brain I could never map, because even 1 percent of a mouse brain is something like 1,000 terabytes of data. No other university in the world, I think, could conceivably handle that.”