Big Bang Meets Big Data: SA Joins ASTRON and IBM to Build the Foundation for a New Era of Computing (i.e. DOME)

IBM has entered into a four year collaboration with ASTRON to research extremely fast, but low-power exascale computer systems (collectively known as DOME) targeted for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). The goal of the 10 countries involved is to decipher radio waves from deep space to solve the riddles of the universe and the nature of matter.

Introducing DOME

On March 7, 2012 the Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA SA) announced it anticipates working with IBM with the goal of developing a next generation big data analytics platform (titled DOME) with self-tuning and self-learning capabilities to better analyze large volumes of radio astronomy data. SKA SA is building MeerKAT, the largest and most sensitive radio telescope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

An artist's impression of the MeerKAT array (image IBM Research) DOMEMeerKAT is one of several new radio telescopes being built as precursors to the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international project that should reach its full capacity in the early part of the next decade.

On April 2, 2012 ASTRON, The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, and IBM (NYSE: IBM) announced a five-year collaboration to research extremely fast, but low-power exascale computer systems targeted for the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The collaboration is called DOME, named for the protective cover on telescopes and the famous Swiss mountain.

As part of the global effort to solve this unprecedented challenge ASTRON and IBM launched a public private partnership called DOME, to develop a fundamental IT roadmap for the SKA. The collaboration includes a user platform where organizations from around the world can jointly investigate emerging technologies in green computing, nanophotonics and data streaming. Through its SKA South Africa unit, the National Research Foundation is now a user platform partner in DOME.

Scientists from SKA SA will focus on the following research themes:

  • Visualising the challenge: fundamental research will be conducted into signal processing and advanced computing algorithms for the capture, processing and analysis of the SKA data so clear images can be produced for astronomers to study.
  • Desert-proof technology: the DOME team is researching and prototyping microserver architectures based on liquid-cooled 3D stacked chips. The team in South Africa will extend this research to make the microsevers rugged or “desert proof” to handle the extreme environmental conditions where the SKA will be located.
  • Software analytics: the 64 dishes of the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa will be used for the testing and development of a sophisticated software program that will aid in the design of the entire computing system holistically and optimally—taking into account all of the cost and performance trade-offs for the eventual 3 000 SKA dishes.

I will be following the progress of DOME over the next few months and have access to information regarding any new discoveries made by the system. If you would like to keep updated yourself, consider subscribing to Email Updates or the RSS feed up top.

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COSMOLOGY POEM: Sitting on Planet Earth in Relative Safety

I paid another visit to the Planetarium recently. I was so inspired that I wrote this cosmology poem.


That incredible Feeling
That every Planet plays its part
That everything is as it should be
That we are all being lovingly watched over by something Awesome...

Jupiter soaking up deadly solar rays and asteroids
The Moon guiding the tides of our life-bearing oceans
The Earth's Core that keeps us warm
The loving embrace of our great Atmosphere...

Volcanoes dishing up the soup of Life
The Winds regulating our diverse seasons
The dust of exploding Stars that brought us to planet Earth
Gravity holding us tight, never letting go...

Surely we ought to attribute all this to something even greater?
Perhaps not.


If you share an interest in the awe and mystery that is our Universe, I invite you to read some of my cosmological articles. Many of these came to me from the Director of the Cosmology Section of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa. Anyway, here's a link list for your perusal.

Cosmology poemCosmology Inspiration:

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SCIENCE: The Higgs Boson explained in video

There's been a lot of hype this week over whether or not physicists have discovered the Higgs Boson or “God Particle”. It has left many excited, others offended and a large portion of the public confused.

PHD Comics have put together this great animated explainer video, which may help those who are unfamiliar with the Higgs Boson to understand what all the fuss is about.

The Higgs Boson Explained

I'm going to have a crack at explaining it to the best of my ability as well.

To put it very simply, atoms were once believed to be the smallest building blocks of matter. Scientists have since managed to split open and peer inside atoms and discovered that they contain protons, electrons and neutrons. Physicists have been able to break these down even further and discover more particles. This is where things got a bit quarky. Out came Quarks and Leptons - 6 of each making a total of 12 particles discovered to date.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a particle accelerator that is used to speed up particles close to the speed of light before smashing them into each other. The results are often unpredictable, but what has been hoped is that physicists might catch a glimpse of the Higgs Boson, which has been theorised to be the new most simplest building block in the Universe.

Physicists are only given a fraction of a second to observe what happens when different particles collide into one another. The LHC is therefore run 40 million times a second, all day, all year round.

Without the Higgs Boson, scientists cannot account for why matter (or other particles) have mass. It is thought that in the early stages of the Universe, all particles passed through a Higgs Field from which they acquired their mass. Basically, it is an attempt to understand what happened during the first second after the Big Bang.

These are a couple of related news articles you might find insightful:

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The Most Astounding Fact - Globular Cluster (image:

VIDEO: The most astounding fact about the Universe

If there is one thing we all want in life, it is to feel connected. We want to feel relevant. We want to feel like participants in the goings on of activities and events around us. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive...

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist and science communicator who is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Neil deGrasse is also a research associate in the department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has hosted the educational science television show called NOVA scienceNOW and has been a frequent guest on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Jeopardy!. In 2011 it was announced that Tyson will be hosting a new sequel to Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

During an interview with a TIME magazine journalist, Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked what the most astounding fact about the universe was. His response was so well put that a freelance videographer (MaxSchlick) has created a video using spectacular footage from NASA and various other sources.

The video clip “The Most Astounding Fact” is both emotionally moving and hugely insightful. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a knack for explaining cosmological events with such passion and simplicity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Most Astounding Fact

As quoted from the video link, Neil goes on to say: "For me, that is the most profound revelation of 20th century astrophysics and I look forward to what the 21st century will bring us, given the frontiers that are now unfolding." One of my favourite quotations is from Neil deGrasse Tyson, which goes as follows:

"We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically" ~ Neil Degrasse Tyson

If you are interested in cosmology, quantum physics and more about how our Universe works, here is some interesting reading:

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Read part 1 of Choices and the Uncertainty Principle here

The reason that the laws of general relativity break down at the Big Bang is that it does not incorporate the most basic tenet of quantum theory - the uncertainty principle - the element that Einstein could never accept.

Choices and the Uncertainty PrincipleQuantum theory tells us that the very early Universe must have had a multitude of choices. It could have formed a black hole, there could have been no expansion of the Universe, the strength of gravity could have been stronger or weaker and there could have been no matter in the Universe, only radiation. All of these choices would have resulted in a still-born Universe.

The multitude of choices and resulting uncertainties form the basis of quantum theory. But the Universe, as big as it is today, is still subject to the uncertainties. It is like a gambler throwing the dice - there are a large number of possible rolls of the dice. It is interesting to note that in a large object such as the Universe, the multitude of choices average out to something we can predict. That is why we can apply Einstein’s theory so successfully to the Universe as a whole.

Scientists also refer to the multitude of choices as multiple histories. The well-known American theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, has developed a mathematical framework to calculate the most probable outcome of multiple histories. The same formulae can be applied to determine the most likely position of an electron. Again, the closer we determine an electron’s position, the larger its velocity will be.

The uncertainties of the quantum world are not imaginary; they are real. Feynman's multiple histories idea of the Universe is now incorporated into general relativity to form a unified theory which could be used to calculate how the Universe will develop if we know how the histories started.

Uncertainty Principle and Perceptions of Time

What does quantum theory tell us about time in the Universe? Time does not exist in quantum theory! At least it does not exist in the sense that most of us think about it. There is no clock out there ticking no matter what happens in the Universe. Time in quantum theory is simply the measurement of a process, like the decay of radioactive matter.

Clocks developed to measure such processes cannot measure any duration of time smaller than a billionth-billionth of a second. This is more or less the size of an atom or, more precisely, the time it will take a photon to cross the size of an atom. This interpretation of time is in line with Einstein’s general relativity. Measurement of the duration of processes at the quantum level is subject to the uncertainties and fuzziness typical of quantum theory.

We cannot measure the duration of time it takes a particle to acquire a certain amount of energy. The more accurately we measure the energy, the less accurate can we measure the time it took the particle to gain the energy. This is why the formation of particles (matter) in the early Universe is subject to the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

Uncertainty Principle: Feeling Uncertain?

People do not like uncertainties and therefore most do not like quantum mechanics. As a scientist put it: “I do not like quantum mechanics, but I use it because it works”. The velocity of particles in the early Universe must have been incredibly high due to the high energy levels. If you use such a particle to determine time, you would find that a particle traveling at the speed of light gives you the age of the Universe as NIL.

All particles must have been traveling at very close to the speed of light. It becomes clear that every particle had its own time. Whose time is correct? All readings of time are correct depending on your velocity and the gravitational pull. Einstein said: “every observer’s time is correct”. There is no intrinsic unchanging time.

Uncertainty Principle: What is Reality?

I want to end with a few thoughts about our relationship at the macroscopic level with the microscopic world. In everyday life you never see a single photon and the microscopic world seems so remote and unreal. If you think further, you realize that almost everything in our everyday world is the way it is because of the quantum world. Matter has bulk because atoms have size. The colours, textures, hardness and the transparency of materials all depend on the exclusion principle regulating the behaviour of electrons in atoms. The list could go on, but ultimately the macroscopic world is what it is because of the microscopic world.

The quantum world is not something remote. It forms part of all matter. Take this page; look at it at ever smaller distances and time scales and the apparent mad world I have described above will unfold before your eyes. The problem is, currently we can only access the quantum world theoretically because technology has not developed so far that we can access it in any other way.

Frikkie de Bruyn is the Director of the Cosmology
Section of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa

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