Big data and computing

From the creation of the world wide web to mapping a billion stars with the Gaia mission, computing is changing our world.

Computers are all around us. For example, they:

  • control the satellites that orbit our Earth and explore our solar system
  • gave us the ability to find the Higgs boson in the immense amounts of data produced at the Large Hadron Collider
  • model plasmas and proteins, crystals and hydrodynamics, creating a simulated world at our fingertips.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) provides the computing and data storage needed by academics and industry, as well as pushing the boundaries of our knowledge by developing new software and coding.

Our Scientific Computing Department, together with the Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council, are using our supercomputers at Hartree to develop the next generation weather forecasting model, to obtain the most accurate predictions possible.

We are using data analysis and computing techniques developed for astronomy to understand cancer better, spotting differences between tumour samples in cells.

Robotic telescopes, such as the Liverpool Telescope, are run by computers with no human in control. The telescope has been programmed to take into account factors such as weather, power cuts and atmospheric conditions, and react to events as they occur.

Real data online

You can be involved in some of the largest computing and data analysis projects in the world. By using spare processing capacity on your computer, you can run simulations and analyse data to help scientists working on some of the biggest experiments ever created.

These distributed computing projects create ‘virtual supercomputers’ to help answer some of the biggest and most exciting questions facing the world today.

The LHC@home project allows you to run simulations of particle collisions and beam dynamics at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, helping to understand the fundamental building blocks of the world around us. is the world’s largest climate modelling experiment. Taking part in it helps scientists at the University of Oxford answer questions about how climate change is affecting our world.

Activities to try at home

There are many different ways you can get started with computing, and many activities and challenges you can try at home.

The Hour of Code is a great introduction to the world of coding. In an hour you can learn to create simple mazes and games for yourself.

Codecademy has a wide range of free, online courses that will introduce you to a range of different programming languages.

Arduinos are ‘microcontrollers’, small devices that control circuits, which you can use to create your own projects. For example, you can create a car which follows a torch, or a light-controlled theremin.

Raspberry Pis are cheap, simple computers the size of credit-cards, which you can use to program and interact with the outside world. There’s a large online community where you can get help and ideas for how to work with your principal investigator.

We’ve also collected big data resources aimed at schools and educators.

Join in

More and more code clubs are springing up all around the country and it’s easy to join the fun. CoderDojo coordinate free volunteer-run code clubs for under-18s all over the world and will help you find a local club.

Computer Science for Fun is an online magazine with news and ideas about computer science.

You can also follow the progress of some of the most exciting scientific projects involving big data.

GridPP is an organisation of particle physicists and computer scientists to help run computing for the Large Hadron Collider in the UK. Follow GridPP on Twitter.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is going to be the world’s largest radio telescope, built across South Africa and Australia, to study the furthest reaches of our universe. The SKA will generate so much data that we will have to stretch computing technology to its limits. It will need about a trillion times more computing power than was used to send people to the moon. Follow the SKA Observatory on Twitter.


Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and computing!

It takes place in October each year, and is named after Ada Lovelace, who wrote and published the first computer algorithm. Events take place around the country, and STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory often get involved.

Open online courses

Various universities offer online courses if you would like to learn more about computing:

What else is out there

The world of computing and big data is constantly changing and evolving as we develop new techniques and technologies. You can find out more at:

History of computing

The history of computing is fascinating, including:

  • the ancient Antikythera mechanism
  • Charles Babbage’s difference engine
  • Ada Lovelace’s first computer program
  • Alan Turing’s work during WWII
  • Margaret Hamilton’s hand-written computer code that helped the Apollo astronauts reach the moon.

The National Museum of Computing has some interesting resources on these and many other developments.

STFC’s national laboratories also have a long history of computing. Find out more at Chilton Computing.

Last updated: 27 July 2023

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