From the subatomic to the intergalactic: scientists gather in Leicester to share supercomputer results

Experts in astrophysics, particle physics, nuclear physics and cosmology will assemble at the University of Leicester this week to share the latest scientific advances which have been made possible by DiRAC, a multi-site supercomputing facility.

Founded in 2009 and jointly hosted at the Universities of Leicester, Edinburgh, Durham and Cambridge, DiRAC (Distributed Research utilising Advanced Computing) is a Government-funded super-computer facility, optimised for the specialist needs of scientists working at the cutting edge of theoretical astrophysics, particle physics, cosmology and nuclear physics.

The University of Leicester facility, DIal (Data Intensive at Leicester) has more than 400 nodes with 192 gigabytes of RAM each plus four large memory nodes, three with 1.5 terabytes of RAM and one with 6 terabytes of RAM. This gives it the computing power needed for the massive calculations that underpin theoretical research at the largest and smallest scales of physics.

An annual DiRAC Day meeting allows researchers to share their findings. Presentations at the 2019 event in Leicester, attended by more than one hundred researchers and computing industry representatives, range from the properties of subatomic particles to the evolution of clusters of galaxies.

University of Leicester Astrophysicist Dr Rebecca Nealon, a member of the organising committee for DiRAC Day 2019, said: “The program for this year is really exciting, with updates from all across the DiRAC community - showcasing recent advances in quantum physics all the way through to the formation of galaxies.”

In late 2018, DiRAC took delivery of its latest hardware, effectively doubling the computing power available. On Thursday, six groups of researchers will present their first results drawing on this new, increased capability.

Professor Mark Wilkinson, the Director of the DiRAC Facility and a member of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the University of Leicester, said: “As soon as the new computers were installed, we wanted to give some of our researchers the opportunity to do large-scale calculations that would give them a competitive edge internationally. I was delighted by the range of exciting projects that were proposed – it was a really difficult decision on which ones to select.”

One of the projects which used the new DiRAC computers was a study into the distribution of unusual galaxies called RELHICs (REionisation-Limited H I Clouds) which are thought to contain dark matter and gas, but no stars. At the other end of the scale, another project examined the decay rates of a subatomic particle called a ‘b-quark’ to find out why experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider appear to differ from theoretical predictions.

DiRAC Deputy Director, Dr Clare Jenner of University College London said: “DiRAC Day 2019 will be a great opportunity to hear about how each of the groups around the country is using the DiRAC facility to make new scientific discoveries. Theoretical research nowadays relies on supercomputers – we can’t do the calculations in any other way. So, the DiRAC computers are vital to the success of the UK in many areas of computational research.”

Professor Wilkinson also notes that the impact of DiRAC extends much further than the scientific breakthroughs it delivers: “We are also contributing to the delivery of the UK’s innovation agenda. We work with our industry partners to develop novel hardware and software solutions which can be used in many other applications.”

DiRAC Day 2019, held at the University of Leicester’s College Court conference centre, is supported by computing industry partners including Arm, Atos, DDN, Dell EMC, HPE, Intel, Mellanox, OCF, Panasas and Weka.IO.