WASHINGTON-In the beginning there was an idea. And the idea was good: The National Science Foundation would bring high-performance computing to the scientific masses through a national network of supercomputing centers. Although some feared the network would cater to the computational elite, the five centers created in 1985 have now emerged at the crest of an extraordinary electronic revolution that promises to open wide the doors of numerical simulation to scientists in nearly every discipline.

At a computational frontier where once only physicists and engineers dared tread, medical researchers, biologists, and even sociologists now flock. What was long dismissed as mere "number crunching" has, in the last half of the 1980s, become universally accepted as an invaluable tool for probing that which nature obscures. Its applications range from the complexities of synthetic molecules to the glacial evolution of galaxies.

In May, the NSF propelled four of the centers into the...

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