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September 23, 2004



Just over a year ago, the term "flash mob" began appearing in print and on the Internet to describe a large group of people who, prompted by e-mail, suddenly assemble in a predetermined public location, perform some agreed-upon action — usually to the perplexity of onlookers — and immediately disperse. One of the earliest flash mobs congregated on the mezzanine of New York's Grand Hyatt Hotel and burst into an apparently spontaneous an inexplicable 15-second ovation. The phenomenon quickly spread across the world and was adapted to a variety of interests. According to, "Flash mobs can be for many purposes but most groups stick to having fun."

Michelle Francl
Michelle Francl

Who better than a mob of chemists, such as the 14,000 participants in the 108th annual meeting and exposition of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia at the end of August, to make a subtle alteration to the structure of "fun"? For Bryn Mawr Professor of Chemistry Michelle Francl, who chairs the ACS's Division of Computers in Chemistry (called COMP), creating a temporary supercomputer to solve a complex chemical problem is better than a roller coaster, so computational chemistry is what she organized a flash mob to do.

"Unlike computer clusters that are permanently assembled and need highly trained staff for their care and feeding, a Flash Mob cluster is assembled by simply rebooting a collection of computers with a special CD to run one problem," Francl explained. "When the problem is done, you take out the CD and the notebooks and desktops go back to their mundane, day-to-day existence."

On Aug. 25, volunteers lent 28 ordinary laptop computers that were linked with the help of software that was recently developed by computer scientists at the University of San Francisco (for more information, see Bryn Mawr, thanks to Head of Networking David Bertagni, contributed "a wonderfully fast 48-port switch for the event, which really kicked up our speed," Francl said. "David got an honorary t-shirt for all his efforts."

Francl described the session, which required hauling "more than two miles of cable" into the Pennsylvania Convention Center, as "a huge success." In about 40 minutes, the ad-hoc cluster computer created a model that described a previously unknown behavior of the anthrax toxin. About 60 spectators in the convention center's main hall were, Francl reports, appropriately perplexed. Francl has plans for more "computing by Flash Mob" events at upcoming meetings of COMP.

Flashmob participants
The full FlashMob and many of the laptop volunteers.







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