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Computers Model the Cosmos



Computers Model the Cosmos
By Kirsten Rodenhizer

             lbert Einstein said the
             most incomprehensible
             thing about the universe is
that it is comprehensible. For UVic
astrophysicist Dr. Arif Babul the                                                                                                      • UVic’s Climenhaga Observatory, on the roof
universe is becoming more compre-                                                                                                      of the Elliott Building, is a campus landmark distin-
hensible each day. In fact, he believes                                                                                                guished by the happy face painted on its dome.
astronomers are on the brink of                                                                                                        Pranksters first painted the eyes in 1969, a smile was
explaining the origin of the universe.                                                                                                 added later. The happy face is repainted regularly.
    “Since the beginning of human
civilization we have been wondering                                                                                                    • The observatory is named for Dr. John L.
how the universe came into being,                                                                                                      Climenhaga, founder of the UVic physics depart-
how life evolved…how it all came                                                                                                       ment. The 0.5-metre, computer-controlled tele-
together,” says Babul. “We are living                                                                                                  scope system is mainly used for observing variable
on the threshold of being able to                                                                                                      stars (stars that periodically change brightness) and
answer those questions. It’s a euphor-                                                                                                 for searches for planets beyond our solar system.
ic feeling.”
    Babul researches how our universe                                                                                                  • 37 variable stars and six asteroids have been
evolved from an extremely smooth                                                                                                       discovered at the Climenhaga Observatory.
state into a rich network of galaxies.                                                                                                 • 83 per cent of UVic astronomy PhD holders
He describes poetically the texture of
                                                                                                                                       remain in astronomical research or teaching—the
the universe, comparing it to a
                                                                                                                                       highest ranking among Canadian, American, Austra-
spider’s web with delicate filaments,
                                                                                                                                       lian and Dutch graduate programs, according to a
a bejeweled necklace or frothy bath
water.                                                                                                                                 study published last year by the American Astro-
    In the last two decades astrono-                                                                                                   nomical Society.
mers have been using more and more
powerful tools to observe the uni-
verse. The Hubble Space T    elescope
captures light that has traveled across
the universe for billions of years,
revealing clues about the early forma-
tion of galaxies, stars and planets. The                                                                                               • Visit Arif Babul’s Web site at http://almuhit.
deeper into space astronomers probe,                                                                                         
                                           universes and compare simulated             ultra-sensitive detectors, advanced
the closer they get to the point of                                                                                                    • The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in
                                           galaxy clusters with actual clusters to     data-mining tools or highly sophisti-
origin—the “big bang.”
                                           gauge the accuracy of their theories.       cated simulation software—find a                Saanich has public outreach information on the Web
    Babul uses such observations to
                                               “We’re finding that although our        number of other practical applications          at
help develop theories of how the
                                           model works well in a broad-brush           that generate tremendous economic
universe evolved and tests them with                                                                                                   • See the latest Hubble Space Telescope images
                                           sense, there appear to be elements          returns.”
computer-based numerical simula-                                                                                                       from deep space at
                                           missing from the picture,” says Babul.          For Babul, however, astronomy is
tions. Current theories suggest that
                                           “Our goal is to discover the missing        fundamentally a curiosity-driven                • A great site for general astronomy information is
the observed structures started out as
                                           physics and come up with creative           endeavour. It seeks to answer ques-             hosted by the Royal Observatory Greenwich at
tiny ripples that grew larger with time.
                                           solutions other people haven’t              tions about the past, present and future
    “Although the big picture is quite
                                           thought of.”                                of the universe—questions that strike
compelling, the details are not yet
                                               Babul receives a large portion of his   a chord deep within the human psyche.
fully understood. If you use computer
                                           funding from NSERC (Natural Sciences            “One cannot help but be amazed at
simulations to build a galaxy like our
                                           and Engineering Research Council of         progress we have made in the last
own Milky Way, current theories
                                           Canada) and he notes astronomy              hundred years, yet with every step
suggest there ought to be 1,000
                                           research has broad benefits.                forward we are confronted with the
satellite galaxies swirling around it,”
                                               “Astronomers are constantly             realization of just how vast the
says Babul. “But when we look we
                                           innovating and pushing the ‘high-tech’      universe is and how little we know.
barely see 10. Understanding the                                                                                                       President’s Distinguished Lecture:
                                           envelope. The resulting products—           Nothing can be more humbling.”
details of galaxy formation is the next                                                                                                Dr. Jeremiah Ostriker, Princeton University
frontier.”                                                                                                                             August 25, 7:30 p.m.
    Babul, who was raised in T  oronto
and earned his PhD in astrophysics at
                                           A class to                                                                                  University Centre, Farquhar Auditorium.

Princeton University, also studies the
formation of galaxy clusters—massive
                                           stretch & bend the mind                                                                     Dr. Ostriker is Provost of Princeton University and
                                                                                                                                       former director of the Princeton Observatory. He is
swarms of as many as 1,000 galaxies        It’s a course “guaranteed to stretch and    the puzzle into place, I believe that it is     considered one of the world’s leading theoretical
that also emit copious X-rays.             bend your mind in unimaginable ways.”       extremely important that scientists             astrophysicists and co-authored the first study to
    Using UVic’s new “Beowulf                   Dr. Babul’s physics course for non-    share our discoveries and our excite-           advance the theory of “dark matter,” now a major
Cluster” (39 off-the-shelf PCs             science students (Physics 303: Origin       ment with society as a whole. This              topic in cosmology. Free. Info: 721-7700.
interconnected to function as a            of Space, Time and Matter in the            course is my contribution.”
massively parallel supercomputer) as       Universe) shares the “wild, weird,              Participants in the course are
well as computing power available          exciting and often bizarre world” at        encouraged to be creative by produc-
through colleagues at the University       the frontiers of physics and astrono-       ing, for example, Web pages, a coffee           UVic writing grad Kirsten
of Washington, the University of           my, a world of black holes and worm-        table book, or sculptures that reflect
                                                                                                                                       Rodenhizer wrote this story as a
Massachusetts, Harvard University          holes, of warped space and time.            some of the notions underlying the
                                                                                                                                       participant in the SPARK program
and Ohio State University, Babul and            “Since the very beginning, people      story of the big bang.
                                                                                                                                       (Students Promoting Awareness
collaborators are carrying out some        have been fascinated with questions             A display case in the Elliott Build-
of the largest, most complex numeri-       about time and space, about the             ing contains elaborate group projects           of Research Knowledge), funded
cal simulations of galaxy clusters ever    fundamental nature of matter, about         including twine woven inside wooden             by the Natural Sciences and
undertaken.                                creation,” says Babul. “And now that        rings to accurately represent the               Engineering Research Council of
    The scientists create model            we are starting to put some pieces of       shape of the universe.                          Canada.

                                           Seeing in the dark
Another of Arif Babul’s projects that calls for creative         the formations the light traveled past.                                 Babul is gathering radio telescope images of distant
thinking is the study of dark matter. One of the key                 “We ask, what did it take to stretch or bend the light,         galaxies from large sections of the sky and analyzing them
mysteries in astronomy, this invisible matter may account        and then use that information to map dark matter.”                  for possible distortions.
for 80 per cent or more of all matter in the universe.               Babul compares mapping dark matter to mapping a                     “We are the first to look at matter distribution on
    When light beams travel through the universe, they           mountain range. “If you were looking at the mountains and           scales as large as this,” he says. “The preliminary results
bend and deform when they encounter the gravity of               could only see the snowcaps, those snowcaps would be                suggest that dark matter formations are distributed much
matter formations. By studying light distortions in images       like the galaxies and the rest of the terrain would be the          as we predicted, but they are much larger than we
of distant galaxies, Babul can estimate the properties of        dark matter.”                                                       originally thought.”


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