The supercomputer that studies the origins of the universe

The supercomputer that studies the origins of the universe

Green meadows, tree-lined avenues, the feeling of entering a dimension separate from the world. Advanced research into the origins of the universe is conducted using supercomputers at Durham University near Newcastle in northern England. A type of exclusively intellectual speculation, without immediate industrial implications, "but the kind of research capable of sowing seeds for the future" explains Professor Azadeh Fattahi, associate of computational cosmology, as she accompanies us walking through the institute's avenues.

The entrance to the Physics faculty of Durham University (photo: Antonio Piemontese)

photo: Antonio Piemontese The university's brown brick buildings conceal a secret: behind heavy metal doors blocked by complicated passcodes the low, continuous sound of cooling fans and ICs coming from the CosMa supercomputer wheezes. The name stands for Cosmology Machine, and since 2001 it has been trying to reconstruct the history of the universe starting from its origins - that Big Bang from which everything started but which remains a mystery.

"How is it possible that from homogeneity did we arrive at such a complex world? " is one of the questions, perhaps the main one, which Durham's models try to answer. And for this numerical simulations are needed. "In the beginning the computer efforts were directed silo to dark matter," Fattahi tells "Today, complete hydrodynamic simulations are possible, including all the physics related to galaxy formation, the star formation process, explosion of supernovae, to the activity of black holes and beyond. ”The model is called Flamingo, and as the doctor explains, the use of bird names is a kind of tradition.

One of the images obtained through the supercomputer of Durham University (photo: Durham University)

How to study the universe with a supercomputer CosMa is part of the British project Dirac (Distributed Research utilizing Advanced Computing), launched in 2009. Four locations: in addition to the town in the north of England, universities participate Cambridge and Leicester plus Scotland's Edinburgh, each specializing in one aspect of research. The idea was born to provide cosmological, astrophysical and particle physics studies with the computing power necessary to analyze and interpret experimental data and those provided by observation. Thanks to machines, scientists can verify their theories.

The first version of CosMa dates back to 2001, even before the birth of the Dirac project. "The current one, the eighth, costs six million pounds and is run by three people," says Alastair Basden, head of the unit. Basden has the typical aplomb of a scientist who is not inclined to talk. Middle-aged, casual wear, Bermuda shorts, T-shirt, he welcomes us cordially by offering us coffee or British tea, before leading us to the room where the supercomputer works. “We currently have eighteen gigabytes of ram for each core used,” he explains. "Compared to the typical system used for these purposes, which uses two to four, we believe it is a significant increase."

It's hot, very hot: powerful fans try to lower the temperature, which remains high. If you wonder why data centers are built in cool places - and why they consume so many energy resources - part of the answer lies precisely in the need to constantly cool the plants, which would otherwise melt.

The intertwining of cables of the Cosma supercomputer (photo: Antonio Piemontese)

An inextricable intertwining The noise is annoying, the intertwining of cables inextricable. “The Dirac project has four locations - continues Basden - Durham's one focuses on activities that require enormous amounts of memory to be completed. After all, to simulate the universe on a large memory scale, a lot of it is needed. These simulations can take months to run. But after having produced their data, which are snapshots of the universe in many different time phases, it still takes years to process and analyze them ”.

CosMa has simulated planetary collisions that have served, for example, to explain the unusual axis of rotation of Uranus. "But the simulations also contributed to the studies that led to the discovery of gravitational waves," says Basden.

Scientist explains that CosMA was tailored to the type of research being conducted in Durham. The project is currently underway. course is called MillenniumTNG XXL. "It is the state of the art of cosmological simulations. Collaborating with other European realities, we usually realize they are not as efficient, because they do not have enough ram per core, even if there are a greater number of cpu . Here we tend to have better results because the machine is designed specifically for these purposes ".

The technology that drives the computers is provided by Amd, which has named the various versions with the names of Italian cities: c ' is Rome, Genoa, Naples, Milan will arrive. It would be nice to imagine a reference to the scientific tradition of our country. The reason, in reality, is more banal. "Marketing issues" explain from the company, which in 2020 established a fund for scientific research to help in the fight against Covid, but which over time has expanded the range of action to other fields of study. The computing power donated so far is twenty petaflops, distributed to twenty-five universities in eight countries. The company has declared its willingness to support research projects: on the website the information to apply.

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