July 23, 2012

Stephen Hawking Gets a New Supercomputer

Robert Gelber

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently launched a new supercomputer at the University of Cambridge. Named COSMOS, the SGI Altix UV2000 cluster is Europe’s largest shared-memory system. An official statement from the university says that COSMOS will “open up new windows on our universe.”

The new machine is officially part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) DiRAC high performance computing facility. The national service assists astronomers, particle physicists, cosmologists and non-academics with their research. Including the new installation, DiRAC now has five HPC clusters in its infrastructure, two of which reside at the University of Cambridge.

This is the ninth supercomputer iteration deployed by the COSMOS project, which as been around since 1997. In this case, the new SGI machine, currently houses 1,856 Xeon E5 (Sandy Bridge) cores and will eventually be upgraded with 31 Xeon Phi coprocessors based on the MIC architecture. The system also contains 14.5 TB of globally shared memory.

While the new computer has just been deployed, its predecessor (COSMOS VIII) has received an upgrade. That system is a first-generation SGI UV (UV1000) system, holding 2 TB of shared memory and powered by 768 Nehalem EX cores.

Explaining why these systems are important for the study of the universe, Hawking said: “We have made spectacular advances in cosmology and particle physics recently.  Cosmology is now a precision science, so we need machines like COSMOS to reach out and touch the real universe, to investigate whether our mathematical models are correct.”

Last year, Intel studios filmed a promotional video about the COSMOS project featuring the iconic Hawking.


The COSMOS IX launch took place during the Numerical Cosmology 2012 workshop at the university’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences. Sponsored by Intel, the invitation-only event aimed to connect scientists and technologists of the various disciplines of numerical cosmology. Leaders in the fields of IT and cosmology typically do not cross paths, and bringing them together was one of the major goals for the workshop. 

Though creating a gathering space for these professionals was deemed important, the workshop also works to realize Hawking’s goal of revealing an “ultimate theory”. The discovery would allow researchers to predict how everything in the universe will unfold. However, it would not spell the end of cosmological studies. Said Hawking: “Even if we do find the ultimate theory, we will still need supercomputers to describe how something as big and complex as the Universe evolves, let alone why humans behave the way they do!”

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