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Date: December 04, 2000

UVic Astronomers Build "Team Canada" or Galaxy Research

Canadians are helping to revolutionize computational cosmology -- where computer programs simulate the changing shape of the universe -- but most of them aren't doing their work in Canada.

Out to change that is the new UVic-based Canadian Computational Cosmology Collaboration or "C4" -- led by UVic astronomers Dr. Arif Babul and Dr. Julio Navarro, along with Dr. Hugh Couchman of McMaster University in Hamilton.

"We're trying to jump-start a vibrant, Canadian-based group and repatriate this expertise," says Babul, C4's director.

In the last year, UVic has added the computing horsepower demanded by C4 and other international research programs the university is leading. UVic's new "Minerva" supercomputer -- currently the most powerful computer in Canadian academic research -- and the "Beowulf" system of 40 standard desktop computers aligned to tackle complex problems in parallel -- provide the backbone of the C4 program.

"With Minerva and Beowulf," says Babul, "UVic now has Canada's best and most powerful computer facilities for computational cosmology."

The C4 collaboration has begun with a four-year, $480,000 "seed" grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and prior support from the Pacific Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics.

The collaboration will explore how galaxies have formed and changed shape compared to the smooth, homogenous features that dominated the universe just after the big bang. Understanding the structures of galaxies is "the next big step" in cosmology, says Babul.

"The UVic group of computational cosmologists is on the way to becoming recognized as one of the best in the world," says UVic President David Turpin. "These initiatives will further enhance their leadership in this important area of fundamental research."

In order to match their theories with current observations provided by instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, cosmologists rely on "smart" computer software programs (employing sophisticated algorithms) that generate simulations of all the physical processes that shape a galaxy -- including gravity, the behaviour of gas, stars, dark matter and collisions with other galaxies.

Canadians have written the two most advanced software codes for galaxy simulation, contributing to today's revolution in cosmology. The first was authored by Couchman, the second by a promising young doctoral student at the University of Washington (UW), Jochim Stadel, who left Canada because of a lack of resources. Now, Stadel has accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at C4 and will join UVic in January.

C4 has already established international research partnerships with UW, the University of Durham (U.K.) and Germany's Max Planck Institute. "These are all world leaders in computational cosmology with access to the largest supercomputers in the world that are available for civilian use," says Babul. "The students and postdocs that come to C4 will be trained in cutting-edge computational techniques that are at the heart of the economic transformations we see today."

Media contacts:
Dr. Arif Babul, Director Canadian Computational Cosmology Collaboration
(250) 721-8844 <babul@almuhit.phys.uvic.ca>

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