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The universe in a program

Astrophysics calculations require tremendous amounts of computer power to simulate black holes, planet formation and the beginning of the Universe…these are pretty big problems to solve! Supercomputers have been put to use tackling these kinds of questions for decades, but as always, their continued development is more than matched by the heavyweight calculations that we throw at them.

DiRAC (Distributed Research utilizing Advanced Computing) is the UK’s HPC consortium for astrophysics and particle physics research. DiRAC takes a distributed approach to HPC computing, matching up the needs of scientists to the systems best suited for their work. Centres have expertise in particular fields and in their own HPC machines, which have been developed to deal with the task in hand. Virgo, for example, deals with large-scale distribution of material in the Universe. This includes things we can’t see, such as dark matter, as well as the beautiful galaxies and stellar clusters that we can. There is also the UKQCD (UK Quantum Chromodynamics) effort, which tests calculations based on the Standard Model, probing the fundamental building blocks of particles; and COSMOS, which models the early universe and the Big Bang.

Just as for weather and climate modelling, ensemble calculations made possible by today’s supercomputers allow scientists to simultaneously work out lots of similar equations with tiny differences. This allows a picture of physics to be built up from statistical likelihoods.

…and on a tablet computer?
Scientists working in many fields, including cosmology, are concerned that their time shouldn’t be taken up by being expert computer programmers. They’d rather aspire to being excellent physicists or experts in their field. Projects such as VisIVO provide highly visual applications for modelling cosmological simulations, even on tablet computers and smart phones. VisIVO is actually what is termed an application-specific gateway, allowing easy access to European supercomputing facilities so that scientists can get on with doing science.