The University of Chicago Magazine

October 1997


$20-million government grant gives scientists access to supercomputers

University researchers will soon be using the world's most powerful supercomputers to study thermonuclear flashes on old stars. In a project known as the Academic Strategic Alliances Program, the high-speed Department of Energy (DOE) computers-60 times more powerful than IBM's Deep Blue, and 20 times faster than those currently available at universities-will help the scientists to simulate these explosions, improving their ability to measure the size of the universe and to understand the production of heavy ele-ments such as gold and uranium.

"This is an unprecedented opportunity for our scientists and students to use the most powerful computers in existence to solve some of the most complex and interesting problems in astrophys-ics," says David Schramm, vice president for research and an astro-physics professor at the U of C.

The investigations will also help DOE, which is hoping to understand how to use the computers to simulate experiments impossible to enact-such as the detonation of nuclear bombs, which has been banned by an international treaty. Hoping to better understand how to use its supercomputers and how to keep the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile safe and reliable without testing, DOE this summer awarded access to its supercomputers to five universities: Stanford, Caltech, the University of Utah, the University of Illinois, and the U of C. With the access comes a five-year grant of about $20 million per university, with the expectation of increasing each grant to $50 million over ten years. The project marks the first time that the newest supercomputers in the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories will be available for unclassified university research.


A 3D simulation of star formation.


Scientists from the five universities will have access to approximately ten percent of the computing time on DOE's three new supercomputers: one at Sandia National Laboratories, currently the world's fastest; and two being built at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, which will be three times faster than the Sandia computer.

At Chicago, the grant is being used for the new Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes, in which researchers throughout the Physical Sciences Division will work with colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory, operated by the U of C for DOE. Approximately two dozen scientists and their students will study the physics of the nuclear detonations that occur when matter in space is crushed by gravity onto the surfaces of extremely dense stars. The violently exploding stars, or supernovae, emit ten billion times more power than the sun, and shine as brightly as an entire galaxy of stars.

Scientists have tried to use supernovae "to measure the distance to remote galaxies," according to Robert Rosner, a U of C astrophysics professor and the center's principal investigator. "To understand the true size of the universe," says Rosner, "we need to determine whether these incredibly bright objects can be relied on as the universe's 'standard candles.' This project will allow us to do that."

The U of C project shares many elements of DOE's research problem, notes Rosner. "The computer science necessary to do our problem is not all that different from what will be needed for the DOE problems," he says. "We also deal with nuclear burning of material at very high temperatures and densities." He adds that the U of C work on the supercomputers could even have implications for weather prediction, or yield information on how air-gas mixtures burn inside engines.

The supercomputers, says Rosner, "are really one of a kind. This is a fantastic opportunity for university researchers."

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