Scientists have long wanted to recreate the condition of an early universe in computers. But because of the huge amounts of information that must be processed to create the most highly developed astrophysics models, only supercomputers have been able to handle the work. And since supercomputers are sparse, experiments have been limited to scientists who must travel to supercomputer locations to conduct their research. 

But recently, that all changed. just reported on a successful test allowing scientists in Oregon to watch a supercomputer early universe simulation in Chicago. The streaming event, which took place in real time, was a fully rendered early universe simulation. Mark Hereld is a computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Illinois. As he told, "this is an example of trying to break down that barrier — a barrier that gets higher every day as simulations get more complex.” Theoretically, the scientists in both Portland and Chicago could have “played” together in the supercomputer simulation much like one does with an online video game.

This particular experiment showed how ordinary matter and dark matter might interact over the course of almost 7 billion years. The simulation started at Big Bang, or the beginning of the known universe. Estimates are that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, so this is quite a chunk of time. The experiment also focused on Baryon Acoustic Oscillations, which are a space phenomenon related to the clustering of certain fundamental particles in the gas between galaxies.

And why can’t your desktop take on such simulations? For one, you need a tremendous amount of hard drive. The Oregon/Chicago simulation started with 148 terabytes of data, where one terabyte roughly equals 200,000 digital photos or music mp3s. The Kraken supercomputer at the University of Tennessee then spent 4 million CPU hours working the numbers, which were then passed on to the Eureka computer in Atlanta. Eureka turned the numbers into the 3-D model of early universe. This 3-D model was displayed on a massive tile screen at the 2009 Supercomputing Conference held in Portland, Ore., last November. Back in Chicago, the software was tweaked to allow it to be shared by all scientists.

In the end, having real-time access to these simulations and datasets may prove to be a huge boost to the scientific community. Rick Wagner is an astrophysicist at the University of California in San Diego. As he told, "the freedom to move our data allowed us to see it in ways we never thought possible; it will be great to see this capability made available to more researchers."

For further reading: Supercomputer shares universe simulations

Early universe simulated in supercomputers
Online streaming allows scientists in Oregon and Chicago to collaborate on research for first time.