Impressions of KAUST

June 22, 2010

Alfio Quarteroni

We land at Jeddah airport in the night. An hour on a narrow strip of asphalt through the desert darkness brings us to a guarded gate. Beyond it, an oasis springs from the magic of the 21st century---lush palms, canals flowing with clear waters, fragrant hills, trees, a green golf course, a futuristic campus.

We are at KAUST, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a project of the Saudi King, who intends to cultivate diamonds of knowledge in the desert sand, a milestone in the technological development of a country that wants to be powerful and influential even once the abundant energy of the black gold on which it floats is exhausted.

Several billions of dollars have been spent to build an architectural masterpiece on the sand and stones. In the construction phase, several thousands of workers, with 90% of all cranes from the Arabian peninsula, worked on the campus.

An army of foreign workers are the creators and maintainers of the extraordinarily beautiful, exceptionally designed buildings. And of waterfalls in the middle of the desert: palm-lined canals leading to the sea, whose calm waters are pumped upward, to cascade back down to the sea. This pleases the residents, allowing them to feel far from the desert that encroaches on the campus from the other side, a greedy monster constantly kept under control.

Global research partnerships have been forged with prestigious universities, such as Stanford, Cornell, Texas A&M, UT Austin, and Oxford, to define the scientific program and recruit researchers who will be transplanted here from international campuses, prophets and missionaries of this new history.

Some 350 students, from Middle Eastern, Western, and Asian countries, and 70 research faculty from the best international universities have been attracted by the difficult though not impossible challenge of KAUST. This fortress of "new knowledge" is marked by the frantic rhythms of discovery that lead to the development of technology and progress.

We have come to KAUST to attend the IAMCS Workshops on Computational and Mathematical Challenges in Material Science and Engineering, March 22–25, 2010.* The topic is complex fluid dynamics, in particular modeling and leading-edge numerical techniques for solving flow problems, with the emphasis on large-scale parallel computing. The workshop is wonderfully organized by the IAMCS crew of Andrea Bonito, Jean-Luc Guermond, Kumbakonam Rajagopal, Jay Walton, and Jim Calvin (director of IAMCS and our host, who introduced us to the wonders and "secrets" of KAUST). The workshop is powered by a good blend of speakers from KAUST and from Texas A&M, with significant support from other countries, including France, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.

The topics are broad, ranging from analysis of complex flows, to numerical solution, control, efficient implementation and parallelization, and application to many diverse fields of engineering, chemistry, life sciences, and environmental sciences. Speakers make time for questions and join the audience in lively discussions. We also have the opportunity to attend a marvelous lecture by Gil Strang on sparse factors for sparse matrices, introduced by David Keyes, the dean of Mathematical and Computer Sciences and Engineering who is developing the computational science thrust at KAUST.

The chance to learn so much about this exceptional project has been a beautiful opportunity for me---rich from a scientific point of view, instructive from a social–political one. It has also been pleasant from a personal perspective: I consider myself lucky to have experienced the warmth of the local people, the folklore, the delicious cuisine, and the enchanting landscapes between the desert and the sea.

Alfio Quarteroni is a professor and the director of modelling and scientific computing in the Mathematics Institute of Computational Science and Engineering at EPFL, in Lausanne, Switzerland; he is also a professor of numerical analysis and the scientific director of MOX at the Politecnico di Milano in Milan, Italy.

*IAMCS, the Institute for Applied Mathematics and Computational Science, was established at Texas A&M under a Global Research Partnership with KAUST.

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