posted on Nov. 16: Super computers keep astrophysicist plugged into cosmos


Astrophysicist Hugh Couchman likes to look deep into the cosmos.

Powerful computers help him explore galaxies millions of light years away. Now he will have even more power behind his research when SHARCNET links his 112 Alpha computer processors at McMaster with 285 computer processors from other universities across southern Ontario.

“SHARCNET, an acronym for Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computer Network, is a distributed network with a hierarchy of clustering,” says Couchman.

Working in parallel, university computers at McMaster, Western, Guelph and Wilfrid Laurier and computers at Fanshawe and Sheridan colleges, will give researchers the opportunity to perform high-speed calculations.

Representatives from McMaster and the participating universities and colleges, government, industry and SHARCNET are celebrating the official launch of the new super computer network today in London. Click on SHARCNET fact sheet for more information about the project.

Couchman is trying to understand how galaxies formed billions of years ago. He uses computers to simulate galaxies in a cosmic three-dimensional environment.

“I use numerical computations to provide a bridge between the cosmic theorist and the observer who uses a telescope,” says Couchman. “I simulate a physical system on the computer and then perform experiments on the system. Numerical simulation allows us to experiment with the universe.”

Before SHARCNET, Couchman had to book time on British and German computers for his experiments. “It's much better to have your own machine. Now I can do my own experiments right here,” he says.

From his desk Couchman sends complicated numerical computations to the network to simulate a galaxy. Other researchers will also be able to test their theories on SHARCNET.

The main SHARCNET research areas are: the physics and chemistry of advanced materials; biocomputation; fluid dynamics in engineering, astrophysics and geophysics; business and finance; and high-performance computing, high-throughput computing and networking.

“We've got all sorts of connections here,” says Couchman. “This project is about developing synergies between different areas.

“Before the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) started funding large-scale servers two years ago, Canada was a third-world country when it came to large-scale computations. We were going to be left behind, but now with SHARCNET and other CFI-funded systems, we've moved up to about sixth in the world.”

SHARCNET was made possible through federal and provincial funding. CFI, the Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT), the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund (ORDCF), university matching funds and corporate sponsorship have combined to provide the project with $42 million over the next five years.

During Couchman's astronomy career, he has experienced the dramatic changes that ever-more powerful computers have brought to his field.

Born in Kent, near Canterbury in England, Couchman completed his PhD at Cambridge in 1986 where his professors weren't sure they should let him use computers to do his research.

From 1986 to 1988 he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto where he began to use computers for numerical computation. There he developed a numerical code he called Hydra after the mythological Greek snake with many heads.

“The code is a numerical hydrodynamics or 'hydro' code,” explains Couchman. “It is a monster and it is an adaptive code which can generate regions of higher resolution – like developing extra heads.”

The code allows researchers to efficiently use all available computer memory when making their calculations. Couchman has spent a lot of his career refining the code for more advanced systems.

He spent three years in astronomy at the University of Toronto before moving to the Department of Astronomy at the University of Western Ontario in 1991. He joined the McMaster's physics & astronomy department in 1999 and shortly after helped to launch SHARCNET. “McMaster hired me in part because the University wanted to get into high-performance computing,” says Couchman.

His desire to better understand the galaxies has pushed him into becoming a computer expert. “It's interesting to tune your code and to have the CPUs blasting away. It's fun but it's also inordinately time-consuming. It can distract you from your research.”

Couchman says this is particularly difficult for students. “They have to make sure they find a balance between their research and their computer work.”

While the study of astronomy can be enriching, the market for astronomers is not large. However, students who graduate with solid computer skills are marketable.

“One of my first M.Sc. students graduated and went to work in Calgary for a telecommunications company. He made 50 per cent more than I was earning,” says Couchman.

Super astrophysicist: Numerical computations and super computer processors connect McMaster astrophysicist Hugh Couchman to galaxies millions of miles away.

Photo by Ron Scheffler