Sept. 25, 1997
Vol. 17, No. 1

current issue
archive / search

    $50 million to scientists

    Grant will fund use of world's most powerful supercomputers University scientists have received a grant of nearly $50 million from the Department of Energy to use the world's most powerful supercomputers to study the explosive deaths of massive stars. The 10-year project is also expected to help us better understand how to keep the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile reliable without nuclear testing. Nuclear tests are now forbidden by the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty announced in 1995 by President Clinton.

    "This is an unprecedented opportunity for our scientists and our students to use the most powerful computers in existence to solve some of the most complex and interesting problems in astrophysics," said David Schramm, Vice President for Research and Louis Block Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics. "At the same time, we will be helping contribute to our nation's technological strength."

    A contract has been signed to provide $20 million to Chicago over the next five years, and University officials fully expect a renewal of the contract for a second five-year period, with funding that will bring the total to nearly $50 million.

    The grant is one of five Department of Energy grants for advanced scientific computing announced July 31 in Washington, D.C. Four other institutions -- the University of Illinois, Caltech, the University of Utah and Stanford -- received similar awards for advanced research.

    The project marks the first time that the newest generation of supercomputers in the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories will be available for unclassified university research that can be shared with other scientists around the world. For that reason, scientists believe the grants will have much broader positive "spin-off" effects on the economy. The grants also provide the closest collaborations yet between scientists in computer science and those in the fields of astrophysics and physics.

    "These machines are really one of a kind," said Robert Rosner, Professor and Chairman of Astronomy & Astrophysics and principal investigator for the Center on Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes, which is being established with the grant. "They are faster than anything we have had available for science before, so this is a fantastic opportunity for university researchers."

    At the new Center on Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes, approximately two dozen scientists and their students will study the physics of exploding stars and the nuclear detonations that occur when matter in space is crushed by gravity onto the surfaces of extremely dense stars. Exploding stars, or supernovae, emit 10 billion times more power than the sun, and shine as brightly as an entire galaxy of stars.

    Rosner explained that learning more about supernovae will help answer two important questions about the Universe.

    "Supernovae are enormously bright, so they can be seen at great distances. And because most of them seem to shine with nearly equal intensity, we have tried to use them to measure the distance to remote galaxies," he said. "If you read in the papers that the size of the universe just increased or decreased, it's probably because the estimate of the brightness of supernovae changed. To understand the true size of the Universe, 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."

    Supernovae play another key role: they produce the Universe's heavy elements. Elements up to the density of iron are produced over many millions of years before the stars explode, while the heaviest elements, such as gold, platinum and uranium, are created during the explosion.

    "We have been called 'children of the stars' because most of the atoms in our bodies were created in ancient stars that exploded as supernovae more than five billion years ago, scattering the dust out of which the earth and solar system formed," said Fausto Cattaneo, Senior Research Associate in Astronomy & Astrophysics and a co-investigator on the project. "And if you are married and wear a wedding band, the gold in that band was created during one of these supernova explosions."

    The Chicago scientists will work closely with their colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory, which the University operates for the Department of Energy. Their collaboration builds on an existing joint program in computational science that makes use of an ultra-high-speed, 155-megabit-per-second computer network; a data storage system that stores and accesses 35 trillion bytes of data; and virtual reality equipment that will create three-dimensional, virtual reality projections of the cosmic explosions.