Over a span of two weeks in October, the Mira supercomputer will crank away nonstop, processing quadrillions of operations every second — something that few other machines are currently capable of doing. It will simultaneously track trillions of particles as they move, expand and react to each other according to the laws of physics.
This simulation will have to use everything mankind has learned about the movement of objects. If successful, it will not only confirm what we've suspected, but will also give us a deeper understanding of how the cosmos came to be.
Mira is simulating an entire universe.
According to The Atlantic, the advent of Mira (along with the more powerful Sequoia and K supercompters) is the first time that machines have been powerful enough to run a simulation of this scale. A normal computer available today simply could not complete the calculations. And when you consider the specs of the Mira, you realise just how massive this undertaking is.
Built around IBM's BlueGene technology, Mira is powered by 768,000 cores spread across 48 blade racks. (This thing is big! Just like other supercomputers!) It has eight petaflops of processing power, and at its peak theoretical performance is able to perform 10 quadrillion floating point operations per second. Oh, and it has nearly a petabyte of RAM.
So what exactly will Mira simulate in this experiment? Essentially, as The Atlantic explains, researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory are interested in seeing exactly how stars — and entire galaxies — expand, clump together and form the filament structures. The behaviour has led scientists over the years to compare the universe to a web-like structure. The simulation will begin with the universe shortly after the big bang, then it will simulate a time lapse lasting 12 billion years to see if our theories of astrophysics hold up.
Supposing that the experiment does validate centuries of research, we can then begin to move forward. As our understanding increases and supercomputers become more powerful, we can begin to explore crazier ideas, like the possibility that there's more than one universe out there (*mind explodes*).
And the Mira supercomputer? Over its lifespan, it will be operational for five billion computing hours a year. The vast majority of its time will be spent cranking out simulations of DOE-sponsored initiatives and challenges. It will reserve a chunk of its time for projects of "immediate need" (such as the Deepwater Horizon oil crisis). It's safe to say this machine will stay busy, even when it's not deciphering the origins of our existence.