Supercomputer set to answer fundamental questions

The UK’s trade and Industry Secretary has launched a supercomputer at the University of Durham that will simulate virtual universes to test how the universe came about.

The past, present and future of the universe is about to be revealed in unprecedented detail by Britain’s biggest academic supercomputer, dubbed the Cosmology Machine, based at the University of Durham.

The UK’s Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt launched the ‘time machine’ on its first simulation program when she switched on the £1.4 million installation at the University’s Physics Department.

The Cosmology Machine takes data from billions of observations about the behaviour of stars, gases, galaxies and dark matter throughout the universe and then calculates how galaxies and solar systems formed and 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 new facility – manufactured by Sun Microsystems and supplied by Esteem Systems plc – has been installed at Durham with the help of £652,000 from the Joint Research Equipment Initiative.

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 to provide strategic investment in key scientific infrastructure for research of international quality.

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 capacity for calculations will, according to a statement from the University of Durham, set new standards in science that could also help other areas of research.

The supercomputers engine room is an integrated cluster of 128 Ultra-SparcIII processors and a 24-processor SunFire.

It can perform 10 billion arithmetic operations in a second and has a total of 112 Gigabytes of RAM and 7 Terabytes of data storage.

‘The new machine will allow us to recreate the entire evolution of the universe, from its hot Big Bang beginning to the present,’ said Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of the ICC. ‘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 that is required to emulate the Universe are the same laws of Physics, such as gravity, that govern everyday events on Earth.’