Schmidt Futures has awarded $1 million to the Institute for Advanced Study for research that uses algorithms and high-performance computers to model the dynamics of planet and galaxy evolution.
The project, led by James Stone, a professor in the Institute’s School of Natural Sciences, seeks to deepen our understanding of various cosmic phenomena, including neutron star mergers, star and planet formations, and the dynamics of the interstellar medium in galaxies such as the Milky Way.
Stone is an authority in numerical astrophysics who joined the permanent faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study this year. His research is focused on fluid dynamics, particularly magnetohydrodynamics and radiation transfer, for which he has developed some of the most powerful and widely used astrophysical codes. He has contributed groundbreaking methods to address some of the field’s most challenging problems, resulting in important insights into the nature of giant molecular clouds, the evolution of accretion disks, the process of planetary formation, and the dynamics of radiation-dominated flows in accretion disks and stars.
“Computational astrophysics continues to revolutionize the way scientists glimpse and interpret our universe, and Jim Stone is driving some of the most cutting-edge research in this field,” said Institute Director Robbert Dijkgraaf in a written statement about the grant. “The Institute is proud to recognize this important investment by Schmidt Futures in a project that promises to bring humanity closer than ever to stars in their finest detail.”
Stone’s work could unlock valuable new insights into the fundamental nature of the cosmos.
“Most of the exoplanetary systems discovered to date are very different from our own solar system, challenging our current theory of planet formation,” Stone said. “Understanding how giant planets grow inside the gas and dust disks surrounding young stars requires numerical models that evolve a dusty, weakly ionized plasma including self-gravity and radiation transfer. I have been working on various aspects of this problem for the past 10 years, and at the Institute I hope to greatly accelerate progress.”
The project could expand on the limited understanding of the properties and internal structure of neutron stars through an analysis of gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation associated with gamma-ray bursts produced by the merger of two neutron stars. Stone’s work to understand the underlying physics of these events relies on the improved accuracy enabled by special-purpose numerical methods. The development, implementation, and testing of these methods represent a core goal of this project.
The research also seeks to understand the dynamics of star formation in galaxies such as the Milky Way. The study is challenging because of the enormous range of scales inherent in the problem, from small clouds of dense gas in which stars form, to the disk of the galaxy itself, which is 10,000 times larger. Resolving all these scales simultaneously requires the use of the largest high-performance computer architectures available, capable of approximately 100 million billion calculations per second. “Our existing codes run at 90 percent efficiency on up to one million CPU cores, and thus are well-positioned to take full advantage of emerging exascale architectures,” Stone said.
The goal of the Schmidt Futures program that began in October is to champion the world’s preeminent computational astrophysicists to develop tools and study the structure and evolution of various astrophysical systems. This funding will support the hiring of a software engineer and a long-term postdoctoral fellow. The three-year program at the Institute began in October.
Eric Schmidt, the co-founder of Schmidt Futures, serves on the Institute’s board of trustees. Schmidt Futures is a philanthropic initiative founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt in 2017 to find exceptional people and help them do more for others together.