I recently interviewed physicist Mariano Vázquez. From his office in Barcelona, Spain, Mariano told me about the supercomputer encased in a crystal box located in a century old church a few hundred meters away from him. Read on as this Argentina native recounts how his time spent traveling around the world in a merchant ship with his family, the giant map on his childhood bedroom wall, and the invention of his own term for “scientist” all ultimately led him to a life of inquiry.

Lea: I’m excited to include your story in this series.

Mariano: I don’t know if it is going to be interesting, but you decide.

Every single person I have interviewed says that and they always have an interesting story, if that makes you feel at ease at all.

Our institute has something very peculiar – it is a supercomputing center. We have a very large computer and what is really very interesting is that our supercomputer is in a church. It is in an old chapel. It is really amazing. It’s not the most powerful, but it’s certainly the most beautiful. It’s very well-done, very beautiful, aesthetically very nice.

How did it get into a church?

The true answer is that the chapel was the only free space that we had, here on the campus of the technical university in Barcelona. As you may imagine, in America there is land everywhere, but in Europe it’s not the same. Everything is packed – the campus of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya is really packed and there are plenty of buildings. They wanted to create this institute and they had no place to put the computer. The church building was not that old, maybe one hundred years old, and wasn’t being used as a chapel anymore. It’s in a small forest on campus by a small lake – it’s a very pastoral church. It was used as the main room for special acts and things for the University, but for many years it was abandoned. It was really the only place to put these kinds of infrastructure.

Of course, a church is not the best place to put a computer. It was not originally built for doing that. So what they did was furnish the building in a very special way — they put the large computer inside of this sort of crystal cube. In Europe it is very well-known. Ours is one of the ten largest supercomputing centers in Europe and they all know very well, “The Computer in the Chapel.

So what they did was furnish the building in a very special way — they put this large computer inside of this sort of crystal cube.
Well, let’s start going back in time now. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was born in the city, and I lived there until I was twenty-six. My parents were both from there. My father was from a very close neighborhood to where I lived. My mother was from a neighborhood outside the city, but it was integrated into the city. It was like New Jersey or something like that. I lived there and did all of my studies through high school and then university until I was a physicist, when I was twenty-six.

What was your home environment like?

My father worked on a merchant ship. On ships you have the captain and then you have the chief engineer. The chief engineer is the one that’s in charge of all of the machinery and the engine of the ship. My father was on that side; so the captain is responsible for the ship, but the second responsible person is the chief engineer. One is responsible for the upper parts, and the other is responsible for the lower parts (like my dad). My mother was a schoolteacher and so we were a normal, middle class family in Argentina. I have a sister, too, and we were very close in age, so we were a family of four. We lived in the city in a part that was very residential but also very vivid, very lively. I’m an urban person.

Did you know anyone who was a scientist or a scholar to introduce you to the world of academia?

No. I think that my father wanted to be an engineer when he was a child. He wanted to work not on the sea… but my grandfather, his father, wanted him to be in the Navy. My father started out in the Navy and didn’t like it; he preferred to do something else. He said that if he was going to work on the ships, he preferred to do it on the merchant ships. As a result I was highly influenced by these kinds of things.

When I was a child, my home was full of encyclopedias. I had plenty of time and I think that these old encyclopedias were the closest thing I had to the Internet… it was like the Internet in paper. I remember myself as a child sitting by the shelves where we had all of these books at home and just sitting there and reading the encyclopedias at random. Just open some pages and look at something. With that I got a passion for technology and science and also for traveling and countries and different cultures. The passion for science and technology was stronger. Even if I didn’t have any scientists in my home, both of my parents were always encouraging my sister and I to do what we wanted to do. My sister is a biologist and myself, I am a physicist. It was because the environment at home fed this — all of those encyclopedias.

I had plenty of time and I think that these old encyclopedias were the closest thing I had to the Internet… it was like the Internet in paper.
Did you think that you would live in Argentina when you grew up?

I remember when I was a small kid, maybe I was ten or something, my father came home with a very large map of the world. He put it in my room. He said that when he was a kid he always wanted to have this kind of world map in his room. Because it is like… traveling. In those days there was no Internet, so it was mostly your imagination. My father put this map on my wall, and I have always lived with a map in my room. This makes me think of going to places. When I was growing up, I discovered that I wanted to do something that would allow me to go somewhere else. In this way I decided to join these two passions — science and travel — together and it was, finally, more or less like that. At least in my country, in Argentina, when you study physics, when you start your PhD, most of the people go somewhere else. It’s very normal. Since I was a small kid, I expected to study science and to go abroad. I am really a very, very lucky person, because I could do it.

In those days there was no Internet, so it was mostly your imagination. My father put this map on my wall, and I have always lived with a map in my room.
Did any particular event shape what you became? If you had to retell your story what are the big moments?

The fact is that I remember that I wanted to be a scientist long before I realized what it was to be a scientist. I have no memory of a part of my life where I didn’t want to be a scientist. I remember. My mom said that when I was about five years old, I didn’t know the word “scientist” and I didn’t know the word “physicist” so I used the word in Spanish, “formulario” which means “form,” the kind that you fill out. I called a scientist a “Formulario,” rather than the proper term “cientifico,” because it was very close to the word for “formula” in Spanish. To me a scientist was a person who was always doing “formulae,” which in Spanish is “formulas” — it made sense to me that a scientist was a person in charge of formulas. I can’t tell where I got this from — I can’t remember a particular situation that shaped this idea as I must have been five.

I also remember when I was in high school, there is something that you do… if you don’t know what you want to do with your life, you can take psychological tests that say “You like architecture” or “You like cooking.” I remember that I never did that, even though all my fellow students at school usually did these kinds of things. I didn’t because I knew what I wanted to do, it was natural for me. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but it was natural. It’s like when you read an interview of an actor or an actress and they say, “I was a clown when I was a kid and then it was natural to do that.” You could think it was kind of like that… with me.

To me a scientist was a person who was always doing “formulae,” which in Spanish is “formulas” — it made sense to me that a scientist was a person in charge of formulas.
Were you running experiments in your room?

That’s it. I was running experiments and building, or trying to build, things. I talked to my father a lot. He took us on three different trips around the world on one of the merchant ships. The whole family went, and we were away two or three months at a time. These trips really boosted my imagination and my sister’s — perhaps they also helped motivate our interest in science.

Tell me about your research now.

I am also very lucky in the sense that I work in a field called Computational Mechanics. It’s a beautiful mixture of physics, mathematics, and computer science. As a computational scientist you try to recreate the complex phenomena of nature on a computer. Also, this is nice because it can put you closer to technology in the sense that if you are in a place like myself, you use large and very modern computers, avant garde computers. Also, the key to being a computational scientist is that you have to program.

Programming is very fun. It’s something where you can almost forget about the world outside you and you are very concentrated on what you do and it’s fun. It’s like a game. We build the tools for doing these kinds of things because we write the software.

To us, nature is a set of differential equations. So we see the different physical systems under this light, and we work with other scientists to apply these mathematical equations to different systems. For instance, right now we are programming with a group of about forty people. Our group is co-led by myself and a friend of mine. The program we developed is used for simulating a wind field, the wind over a field for producing electric energy; the circulatory system, the heart, the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system; composite materials that are used on wings of a plane, the aerodynamics of the wing itself. Many different things. It is very nice because you keep on the programming and developing side, but you work in a very close relationship with people who are experts in other fields. They know about anatomy, aerospace, engines, and you learn. It’s really fun to interact with them. This is, more or less, my work here.

As a computational scientist you try to recreate the complex phenomena of nature on a computer… To us, nature is a set of differential equations.
What do you think the power is in working with people from a bunch of different fields; what types of benefits do you have from doing that?

It is really very, very interesting because it is impossible that you get bored. You are always discussing different things. You learn about the similarities among fields because we need to develop a tool that can be used in different fields. You establish analogies and you learn all the time. It’s a learning process that is not painful at all. Being at a research center — not a university — we are expected to collaborate and provide services to other researchers. In doing so, you really get to learn and that’s so very interesting.

What’s your big goal for the next couple of years with your work?

We are very lucky because our group is growing, which means that the code is used by other people, but also that other people are contributing to the code. So we program ourselves, but we can supervise other people doing things. We have arrived at a point where we supervise other people that supervise other people, too. It’s like two generations of supervising, which means it is growing, like a tree. The goal for the next two or three years is being concrete.

We are studying some difficult systems in which we are coming to a point where we can simulate something that has not been simulated before. For instance, we are now going to be able to simulate the entire cardiovascular system, including the heart. From the heart to the arteries to the very small arteries in the brain. This is a collaboration with a friend of mine in Brazil who is doing the arteries. We do the heart, he is doing the arteries and then we will link them together. We are arriving at the point — and I have to say a big thank you to our bosses, because they let us do this —  where we can do things that no one else can do. Not because we are smarter, but because of the environment that we are working in.

For instance, we’re working on a simulation of an airplane engine. We started by doing the combustion chamber and we are moving from the combustion chamber outward. We would like to perform larger and larger simulations that include more parts of the engine until we have the full engine — from the point that air enters, is compressed, burned and then expelled. We are trying to do this.

What does a great success look like for you? What does that feel like? How do you say, “We win today.” You have goals, how do you know that you’ve achieved them? With programming it seems you’re always tinkering.

We work in collaboration with other people in general, and they help give us the focus so that we can put the goals together. When you start working with someone, you have to develop a lot. At the beginning there is a lot of enthusiasm and then there is a plateau and then once you start seeing the eyes of the collaborator sparkling… then we’re getting there.

By working in a center like this, with this large computer, we are trying to point at very difficult and complex problems. Other researchers are more focused on the parts of the problem, to improve small parts of the problems to make them better and better. We are more interested in coupling problems to make a larger problem. In a sense, if you really do this well, you achieve a point where you get progressively more lonely. At the point where you say, “We are the only persons that are doing this.” You feel it. You can see it. In any case, there is never an end — you typically work on a day-by-day basis.

How did you get interested in bodies and in hearts?

As I said before, physical systems each have their own peculiarity, but they are described more or less in the same way, with differential equations. Biological systems are the most complex physical system, so that’s a very good reason for working on that. There are fields, however, where no one comes to work with you. For instance, we are not working in cosmology… because there were no cosmologists that came to us to discuss problems. With the heart, it was someone that I knew that came to me to say this was a nice problem and one where he thinks that large computers have a strong impact. This motivated me to pursue these ideas. Once you start reading the papers and try to figure out how to program this, then you say … oh, yeah… this is very appealing and very nice. It is also something that I can explain to people because everyone knows more or less what the heart is. It’s rewarding in that sense.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to model a simpler system, you talked about water in a toilet, or movement of clouds through a city… is it the challenge that drives you?

Yes, in fact, we use the same program for simulating the aircraft engine, the flushing toilet and the heart. You have more or less the same structure. The difference is that with the aircraft engine and the heart, it is more challenging for many reasons, but the main reason is that there are different physics applied together. Combustion for the engine, the flow, heat transfer, the mechanical parts that are deforming by the heat, things like that. And it is a very complex system. Something that really moves us is when you see something that is challenging. You see something that is difficult and there are few groups working on that, and this poses a challenge.

It strikes me that for someone with your skills you could almost study anything, anything with moving pieces, is that true?

No. Because, then you learn that what you’re doing is small parts. There are plenty of things you don’t know, even with the heart, it’s a very good example. When you do your simulations, you want to mimic as best as possible nature, the action of nature. You would like these tools to be used for healing people. Something that is very important is that you must validate that what you are simulating is close to what is happening in nature. It is much easier to validate an aircraft engine than a heart. It is much, much, much more difficult to validate a heart model. You can have experimental results of everything that you need in an engine — you can change parts and experiment. You can do many, many things that you can’t do with the heart. Also, the physics of the heart is much more complex. It’s much more multi-scale. You have cells. You have many cells coupled together, and yet you don’t know how to simulate that. The models we’ve helped develop are incomplete. You know what you are not doing, but you hope that you are getting closer to the best model. You know that your model is not complete at all. The more you study and the more you work on that, you see more and more things that you didn’t know. You must go deeper, and you must work in closer collaboration with experts that can help you. Nature is so complex, there is no way of doing it properly.

The saying that keeps us going in science is that the more you know, the more you don’t know… you keep asking and going. Does it ever feel like you have some sort of magical power that you can use computers, where you can see things that would otherwise be invisible?

Something that I have always said with my friend, a French guy who is the other person leading our group, is that when you simulate something, even if it is simple, the results are like magic. Even if it is a really stupid simulation, it is amazing that a program can do this. When someone from our group uses this code, this program, to do something that is very complex, this is the magical moment. You say, wow, I started to do something that then helped another person to do something using my tools, and then this person arrived to this other point… it’s really magical. It’s magical. It’s like.. we like to say also that this is kind of a Teletubbies world. There was this artificial landscape, and everyone was happy there and smiling. With a television here at your stomach. We are living in a Teletubbies world.

Who’s the baby in the sun?

Maybe, the program. The code is the baby in the sun.

[laughs] I never thought about this.

Of your work with hearts what are you most proud of so far?

Yes, it is maybe the most advanced of the things that we do. I like the results, of course, but the thing that we like most is to work with the program. When the field that you are applying your code to is appealing, it motivates you to keep working. For me, the nicest part is when you can program. Before programming you have to write the equations and figure out how to program them. Even if I am proud or I like the results of what we do, I find the programming the nicest part.

How many people did it take? You mentioned there are forty on your team. But how many computers? I’m thinking about quantifying what you’re doing. Think about how many people it took to get one of your programs to work.

The kind of software that we developed is very modular, so if you’re an expert in electrophysiology you can focus in on a part of the code. The computer in the chapel is a large computer, so it’s more or less 50,000 computers working in a collaborative way. It is not the largest in the world – the largest is more or less one million computers working together. You need a large computer and you need a lot of people. We started here to develop these codes ten years ago. It wasn’t forty people at the time, but maybe on average twenty people devoted to it over ten years – it’s a lot.

Your computer is in a chapel. Is there any symbolism to running biological models — models that are the consequences of evolution — inside of a church?

Yes. It’s kind of a motivation in a way. It’s like the silicon gods, if you can imagine something like that. We work in a building separate from the church — it’s two hundred meters from here, so you don’t see it all the time. You just connect to the computer and do things. You are not thinking of this all the time, but it is a nice discussion to have over some beers in a bar. The people that come to visit us … “Oh… you built this computer in a church where you are trying to recreate nature, it is like playing God.” Things like that… yeah… maybe. But in your everyday work you don’t think about that.

Is there any particular kind of knowledge that, if you had it, would change how you do what you do? For example: Would you like to see all of the hearts of all of the kinds of animals in the world?

Yes and no. Because as I said before, I’m more interested in the abstraction of the physical system, to have a deeper knowledge of the function of nature in itself. A heart is an example, but also there are other physical systems that I’d like to try to find an answer that we are looking for.

Do you think about your own body differently in light of your models? Your heart… your blood… how it all works?

Yes. It gives you a different appreciation of things, this is true. Also working with aircraft simulations. When you’re a physicist — that’s really how I think of myself — everything that surrounds you has a different color that is informed by your background. I have this colorful way of seeing things. But then, as you said, once you work on these kinds of things and you see how difficult it is to simulate something, then you really realize how complex the system is. It is true. It gives you a different way of looking at things. This is something that makes you appreciate how complex it is.

I would like to add that I’m really very grateful to these kinds of things. It’s important to be able to show people our work and let them know that it’s not that difficult and it’s not that obscure. It’s something that everyone can learn and everyone can do. It’s very interesting and very useful, too. If we get more and more people involved and interested in that I think it is something that can help a lot, not for changing the face of the world from the technological point of view, but to change it from the spiritual point of view. In the sense that if you are interested in understanding how nature works, you can realize how wonderful it is and you can forget about killing other people, let’s say. It’s like when you see something that is very beautiful, you get abstracted from … you get so deeply impressed that you forget about other things that can be bad things, or selfish things.

If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would you say?

Read the encyclopedia. Get interested in technology and science and knowledge. Get interested in knowledge of every kind. My parents or my grandparents would say 20, 40 or 60 years ago to read more. Right now it’s not necessary to read, you can watch documentaries and watch television and ask people about things. I would say to a current middle student to try to go after the knowledge. To seek knowledge and to try to learn more is always good. There’s no way that this can be bad for you and for your family and your environment and people around you. To know more, try to know more.

Dr. Mariano Vázquez is the co-architect of the Alya System for Computational MechanicsSee him talk about his computer models