Cosmology Machine creates the universe
Posted: August 2, 2001

Prof. Carlos Frenk gives demo to Patricia Hewitt. Photo: PPARC
The past, present and future of the universe is about to be revealed in unprecedented detail by Britain's biggest academic supercomputer called the Cosmology Machine, based at the University of Durham.

Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt launched the "time machine" on its first simulation programme this week when she switched on the 1.4 million state-of-the-art installation at the University's Physics Department.

The Cosmology Machine takes data from billions of observations about the behaviour of stars, gases and the mysterious dark matter throughout the universe and then calculates, at ultra high speeds, how galaxies and solar systems evolved. By testing different theories of cosmic evolution it can simulate virtual universes to test which ideas come closest to explaining the real universe.

The gigantic new facility - manufactured by Sun Microsystems and supplied by Esteem Systems plc - has been installed at Durham with the help of 652,00 from the Joint Research Equipment Initiative (JREI). The JREI was set up by the DTI's Office of Science and Technology, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and the research councils - in this case, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) - to provide strategic investment in key scientific infrastructure for research of international quality.

The funding forms part of 18 million worth of special strategic investment in Durham science by DTI and the research and funding councils over the past two years.

The supercomputer is operated by the Institute for Computational Cosmology (ICC), part of the Ogden Centre for Fundamental Physics now being developed at Durham. Its breathtaking capacity for calculations will set new standards in science that could also help other areas of research. The supercomputer:

  • is called the Cosmology Machine. Its engine room is an integrated cluster of 128 Ultra-SparcIII processors and a 24-processor SunFire. It is the largest computer in academic research in the UK and one of the 10 largest in the UK as a whole.

  • can perform 10 billion arithmetic operations per second. This number of operations would take a numerate individual about a million years of continuous calculation to complete. Alternatively, if all of the Earth's six billion inhabitants were proficient at arithmetic, it would take them about two hours to carry out the same number of operations that the supercomputer can carry out in a single second.

  • has a total of 112 Gbytes of RAM and 7 Terabytes of data storage. (A terabyte is more than a million million bytes). This is the equivalent of nearly 11,000 CD-ROMS. It could hold the contents of the 10 million books that make up the British Library collection and still have plenty of space left over.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Durham, Sir Kenneth Calman said: "This is a fascinating and important branch of physics. I am delighted that my colleagues in Durham have established the expertise and quality to take a lead in advancing the frontiers of knowledge even further."

Section of the supercomputer. Photo: PPARC
Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of the ICC, says: "The new machine will allow us to recreate the entire evolution of the universe, from its hot Big Bang beginning to the present. We are able to instruct the supercomputer on how to make artificial universes which can be compared to astronomical observations. It is truly remarkable that all is required to emulate the Universe are the same laws of Physics, such as gravity, that govern everyday events on Earth."

Chief Executive of PPARC, Professor Ian Halliday says, "This is a stunning resource for astronomical research in Britain. It will enable consortium scientists in UK, Germany, Canada and the USA to perform cosmological calculations of unprecedented size and detail. We are poised to confront one of the grandest challenges of science: the understanding of how our universe was created and how it evolved to its present state."

The Durham Institute is a leading international centre for research into the origin and evolution of the universe and is the UK base of the "Virgo consortium for cosmological simulations", a collaboration of about 30 researchers in the UK, Germany, Canada and the USA.

Research ranges from the formation of the first objects in the universe, to the physics of the great clusters of galaxies. Long-term goals are to understand the formation of structures in the universe, to establish the identity and properties of the dark matter that dominates the dynamics of the universe, to determine the parameters of our world model, and to relate the Big Bang theory to astronomical observations.