ICASU researchers awarded $4.4 million for cyberinfrastructure to solve long-standing problems in fundamental physics

9/17/2021 Jessica Raley for ICASU

Written by Jessica Raley for ICASU

A computer simulation of two merging neutron stars (left) is blended with an image of heavy-ion collisions at CERN. (Credit: Lukas R Weih and Luciano Rezzolla/Goethe University Frankfurt and CMS/CERN)
A computer simulation of two merging neutron stars (left) is blended with an image of heavy-ion collisions at CERN. (Credit: Lukas R Weih and Luciano Rezzolla/Goethe University Frankfurt and CMS/CERN)


Three Illinois Physics and Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe (ICASU) professors lead a team of researchers who recently received a $4.4 million grant from the Office of Cyberinfrastructure for Sustained Scientific Innovation (CSSI) of the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The project is called Modular Unified Solver of the Equation of State, or MUSES, and it will provide scientists with an open-source cyberinfrastructure that can be used to generate equations of state (EoS).


MUSES is a collaboration between multiple institutions, with principal investigators at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), The University of Houston, and Kent State University. The objective for this collaboration is to develop a new cyberinfrastructure that will provide novel tools for answering interdisciplinary questions in nuclear physics, gravitational wave astrophysics, and heavy-ion physics. Such questions include: What exists within the core of a neutron star? What temperatures are reached when two neutron stars collide? What can nuclear experiments with heavy-ion collisions teach us about the strongest force in nature?  
The MUSES collaboration comprises an interdisciplinary team of researchers specializing in lattice quantum chromodynamics (QCD), nuclear physics, gravity, relativistic hydrodynamics, and computer science from at least 16 institutions. All of the programming and front-end development will be done at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at UIUC. 


The MUSES cyberinfrastructure will allow users to create EoSs in real time, given user-selected nuclear physics parameters. The EoS relates various properties of a material such as its temperature, pressure, and density. The EoS of a given material depends on the material’s microscopic properties and on how strongly those properties interact. Because the EoS is a set of relationships, scientists can use it to infer other information. For instance, if one knows the EoS of a neutron star, then one can determine what type of particles are contained within its core and how they interact.


Illinois Physics professor and Principal Investigator (PI) of the project Nicolás Yunes says, “The benefit of MUSES is that it provides both thoroughness and flexibility. Researchers can harness the power of different models created by research groups around the world. They can also tailor their inputs to generate EoSs, which can be used to make predictions to compare with observations. This cyberinfrastructure will become an essential tool for interpreting data from future nuclear physics experiments and astrophysical observations.”


According to Associate Director of ICASU Jorge Noronha, who is a co-PI on the project, “MUSES will help scientists investigate fundamental problems in the physics of many-body systems that cannot be solved with current techniques. It will allow us to gather several different approaches based on very different techniques ranging from lattice QCD to string theory. The new understanding about the EoS of highly dense matter that MUSES will bring, and its connection to measurements in high-energy nuclear physics and astrophysics, will play an important role in the field for the years to come.” 


Illinois Physics professor Jacquelyn Noronha-Hostler, another co-PI, adds, “Certain conditions exist in nature that we can’t replicate in a lab, such as the densities at the core of a neutron star. We rely on models to try to discover what those conditions are like and what phases of matter exist under those conditions. A lot of models are out there, but not everyone has access to them. MUSES will bring them together and make them plug and play.” 


Improving access to these models is a top priority for the team. T. Andrew Manning, Senior Research Programmer at NCSA, says, “Scientists in many fields of research are encountering barriers to progress due to their growing need for scalableflexible, and collaborative computing resources. The MUSES cyberinfrastructure will fulfill each of these needs in a way that will translate to other types of research. The cyberinfrastructure we develop will be free and open source, relying as much as possible on other free and open-source software, which is something I am personally passionate about.”


Yunes, who is also the founding director of ICASU, says this project is “proof of concept” for the ICASU mission. “With MUSES, we will tackle scientific questions that no individual scientist or single research group can answer. The experts at NCSA—who are also members of ICASU—will be critical to this project, because its success relies on online deployment. The mission of ICASU is to foster multi-disciplinary research and collaboration, and this project is a perfect example of what we set out to do when we created the center two years ago. This new funding constitutes the first multimillion-dollar, multi-disciplinary effort that will be directed by ICASU personnel, and it demonstrates that funding agencies recognize the value of the work we are doing,” Yunes says.


MUSES has two additional co-PIs, Professor Claudia Ratti from the University of Houston and Professor Veronica Dexheimer from Kent State University. In addition to Manning, senior personnel on the project include Gordon Baym, Professor of Physics at UIUC; Roland Haas, Senior Research Programmer at NCSA; and Matias Carrasco Kind, Director of the Data Science Research Services at the Gies College of Business. Illinois Physics professors Stuart Shapiro and Helvi Witek will also collaborate on the project.

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This story was published September 17, 2021.