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Summer Research at the University of Hamburg, with the DAAD WISE scholarship.

Star Formation with Numerical Simulations Group of Prof. Dr. Robi Banerjee, Hamburger Sternwarte

I received the DAAD WISE scholarship in 2011 and worked at The Hamburger Sternwarte (Hamburg Observatory) under the University of Hamburg, Germany, with an astrophysics group specializing in studying star formation using numerical simulations.

The Hamburg Observatory was set up in Bergedorf, Hamburg over a hundred years ago. Around forty years back it came under the Physics wing of the University of Hamburg. Apart from observational experiments, the ongoing work today also involves theoretical and computationally aided studies of astrophysical problems by teams and individual scholars.

The research group that I worked in at the observatory was led by Prof. Dr. Robi Banerjee. At the time of my summer stay, it was a five-member group drawing from three countries.


Some of the problems which have been simulated by these numerical methods in the past include, for example, how certain disruptions in the interstellar gas and clouds can have the effect of halting a star formation process. Another interesting phenomenon studied through these methods is how regions of a turbulent gas in space that move faster than sound can create shocks (like a sonic boom) that eventually give birth to stars or star clusters.

Problems of this kind are too complex and large-scale to work out theoretically using only analytical reasoning and mathematical tools. Also, one can obviously not conduct experiments of such magnitude and nature with dust, clouds and stars out in space. Therefore, the only technique enabling the study of such astrophysical problems is to set up the entire physical system on a computer to as close an accuracy as possible, then let the system evolve along its route set by the natural laws, which would also be programmed in. As the speed and capability of todayâ™s computers improve at astounding rates, such simulation- aided studies become increasingly relevant, essential and productive.

Many of the results of the research group comes from employing the FLASH code for numerical simulation that uses the AMR or the adaptive mesh refinement technique, which essentially is an intelligent manner of cutting on computations and performing calculations only on those parts of the system which evolve to be of interest, while expending only a coarse degree of calculations for the rest of the space.


Owing to its nature, simulation-based research of this sort requires not just raw computing power, but also a significant degree of parallelization, which is the ability to run calculations on many numbers at the same time. Graphics Processing Units (GPUâ™s), commonly used to render the high-end graphics of modern computer games, are essentially hardware built specifically for this purpose. Unsurprisingly, therefore, GPUâ™s have found a welcome use in many computationally intensive projects like this. My work in the group dealt with finding out the degree and nature of speed-ups that one obtains on substituting a GPU for a regular computer processor for repeated arithmetic calculations common in numerical astrophysics.

More information on the work of the research group is available at Prof. Banerjeeâ™s page, and details of my summer work on my page at the observatory website.


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Abhranil Das
Doctoral Student
The University of Texas at Austin, USA


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