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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Universe at their fingertips
Cosmology Machine Durham Uni
Capable of 10 billion calculations per second
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

UK cosmologists now have the entire Universe at their fingertips.

There are 100,000 million stars in the galaxy and 100,000 million galaxies in the Universe, so if you want to recreate the Universe you better have a big computer

Prof Carlos Frenk
A massive supercomputing facility has been switched on, giving researchers unprecedented freedom to model the cosmos.

The supercomputer is built of 152 processors, can perform 10 billion calculations per second and will use astronomical data to create detailed simulations of how the Universe formed.

The Cosmology Machine, as it has been dubbed, has been installed in the physics department at the University of Durham.

A million years

The 1.4m supercomputer is made up of 128 UltrasparcIII processors and an allied 24-processor Sunfire machine. It has 112 gigabytes of Ram and a seven terabyte storage system to hold and manipulate the vast amounts of data collected while observing the Universe.

It can carry out about 10 billion calculations per second. A human performing the same number of calculations would take almost a million years.

"The new machine will allow us to recreate the entire evolution of the Universe, from its hot Big Bang beginning to the present," says Professor Carlos Frenk, director of the Institute of Computational Cosmology, where the machine is sited.

"We are able to instruct the supercomputer on how to make artificial Universes, which can be compared to astronomical observations," he adds.

Cosmos PA
The machine can model the evolution of a galaxy over time

Professor Frenk says that the fixed speed of light means that data gathered about the Universe by satellites and telescopes does not show how it is but how it was.

Using and interpreting these data, cosmologists can get clues about how the Universe first began and create simulations that wind the story of the cosmos backwards and forwards to test current theories.

Professor Frenk adds that previous simulations of the entire Universe have been hampered because supercomputers have not been powerful enough to represent cosmic structures in enough detail.

The Cosmology Machine should now mean that the Universe can be modelled more completely and help scientists understand how we got from the Big Bang to the present day.

"There are 100,000 million stars in the galaxy and 100,000 million galaxies in the Universe, so if you want to recreate the Universe you better have a big computer."

The UK's most powerful academic computer is the Cray T3E machine at Manchester University. It has 812 processors and is capable of nearly two trillion arithmetic operations per second.

See also:

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Powering up the Grid
20 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Bringing the Universe to Earth
10 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Before the Big Bang
30 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Quest for Universe's oldest light
29 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
A 'gift of galaxies'
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