Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Berkeley Lab scientists read the cosmic writing on the wall

NERSC supercomputing a key to Planck's revision of universal recipe

Thanks to a supersensitive space telescope and some sophisticated supercomputing, scientists from the international Planck collaboration have made the closest reading yet of the most ancient story in our universe: the cosmic microwave background (CMB).

Today, the team released preliminary results based on the Planck observatory's first 15 months of data. Using supercomputers at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) Planck scientists have created the most detailed and accurate maps yet of the relic radiation from the big bang. They reveal that the universe is 100 million years older than we thought with more matter and less dark energy.

"These maps are proving to be a goldmine containing stunning confirmations and new puzzles," says Martin White, a Planck scientist and physicist with University of California Berkeley and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). "This data will form the cornerstone of our cosmological model for decades to come and spur new directions in research."

Decoding the Cosmos

Written in light shortly after the big bang, the CMB is a faint glow that permeates the cosmos. Studying it can help us understand how our universe was born, its nature, composition and eventual fate. "Encoded in its fluctuations are the parameters of all cosmology, numbers that describe the universe in its entirety," says Julian Borrill, a Planck collaborator and cosmologist in the Computational Research Division at Berkeley Lab.

However, CMB surveys are complex and subtle undertakings. Even with the most sophisticated detectors, scientists still need supercomputing to sift the CMB's faint signal out of a noisy universe and decode its meaning.

Hundreds of scientists from around the world study the CMB using supercomputers at NERSC, a DOE user facility based at Berkeley Lab. "NERSC supports the entire international Planck effort," says Borrill. A co-founder of the Computational Cosmology Center (C3) at the lab, Borrill has been developing supercomputing tools for CMB experiments for over a decade. The Planck observatory, a mission of the European Space Agency with significant participation from NASA, is the most challenging yet.

Parked in an artificial orbit about 800,000 miles away from Earth, Planck's 72 detectors complete a full scan of the sky once every six months or so. Observing at nine different frequencies, Planck gathers about 10,000 samples every second, or a trillion samples in total for the 15 months of data included in this first release. In fact, Planck generates so much data that, unlike earlier CMB experiments, it's impossible to analyze exactly, even with NERSC's powerful supercomputers.

Instead, CMB scientists employ clever workarounds. Using approximate methods they are able to handle the Planck data volume, but then they need to understand the uncertainties and biases their approximations have left in the results.

One particularly challenging bias comes from the instrument itself. The position and orientation of the observatory in its orbit, the particular shapes and sizes of detectors (these vary) and even the overlap in Planck's scanning pattern affect the data.

To account for such biases and uncertainties, researchers generate a thousand synthetic (or simulated) copies of the Planck data and apply the same analysis to these. Measuring how the approximations affect this simulated data allows the Planck team to account for their impact on the real data.

Growing Challenges

With each generation of NERSC supercomputers, the Planck team has adapted its software to run on more and more processors, pushing the limits of successive systems while reducing the time it takes to run a greater number of complex calculations.

"By scaling up to tens of thousands of processors, we've reduced the time it takes to run these calculations from an impossible 1,000 years down to a few weeks," says Ted Kisner, a C3 member at Berkeley Lab and Planck scientist. In fact, the team's codes are so demanding that they're often called on to push the limits of new NERSC systems.

Access to the NERSC Global Filesystem and vast online and offline storage has also been key. "CMB data over the last 15 years have grown with Moore's Law, so we expect a two magnitude increase in data in the coming 15 years, too," says Borrill.

In 2007 NASA and DOE negotiated a formal interagency agreement that guaranteed Planck access to NERSC for the duration of its mission. "Without the exemplary interagency cooperation between NASA and DOE, Planck would not be doing the science it's doing today," says Charles Lawrence of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). A Planck project scientist, Lawrence leads the U.S. team for NASA.

NASA's Planck Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for both of Planck's science instruments. European, Canadian and U.S. Planck scientists work together to analyze the Planck data. More information is online at and

NERSC is supported by DOE's Office of Science.

About Berkeley Lab

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world's most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab's scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. For more, visit

About the DOE Office of Science

DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit the Office of Science website at


The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is the primary high-performance computing facility for scientific research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. Located at Berkeley Lab, NERSC serves more than 4,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities across a full range of scientific disciplines. For more, visit

About the Computational Cosmology Center (C3)

C3 is a focused collaboration of astrophysicists and computational scientists whose goals are to develop the tools, techniques and technologies to meet the analysis challenges posed by present and future cosmological data sets. For more, visit

Margie Wylie | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA
27.10.2016 | University of Oklahoma

nachricht First results of NSTX-U research operations
26.10.2016 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>