David Landau remembers when the use of computer power in physics was a novelty-something promising, perhaps, but not yet of any practical value. How times have changed.
This semester, UGA’s Center for Simulational Physics, the far-reaching institution in which Landau first brought powerful computers to bear on problems in physics, turns 25 years old. Along with the quarter-century celebration of the center is the 24th annual workshop in simulational physics-a meeting that brings international figures in the field to campus for several days of intensive studies.
“The center began, really, with a vision for a new way of doing physics,” said Landau, Distinguished Research Professor of Physics and director of the CSP. “The idea was to use computer power to simulate what happens in physics, not relying just on theories or experiments.”
Landau is one of UGA’s longest-serving professors, on the faculty in the department of physics and astronomy since 1969. In those days, some of the largest computers in use had less computational power than a cell phone of today. Even so, Landau began to follow trends in the use of computers to solve problems in physics. And as computer power began to increase dramatically, so did Landau’s focus on problems and how they might be solved.
Forty-two years later, Landau is considered one of the world’s experts on the use of computers in physics, and the CSP has educated a generation of students in solving problems, some of which tend toward the theoretical and others of which are real-world practical.
“CSP provides us with various resources and opportunities to enhance our research abilities and experiences, which enable us to stay competitive in academia or the industries,” said Ying-Wai Li, a graduate student in physics.
Improvements in computational power constantly make solving problems richer and more exciting, others say.
The support of the university and of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences led in 2009 to the opening of a new $3.2 million addition and renovation to the Physics and Astronomy Building to house the CSP. The new and renovated space on the north end of the building includes a new home for CSP, a conference room that doubles as classroom space and much-needed additional space for graduate student offices, among many improvements.
The upgraded facilities for graduate students are helping the department in recruiting top students, and additional space encourages participation in the annual Computer Simulation Studies in Condensed Matter Physics Workshop. The event, held Feb. 21-25, is one of the highlights for the science community on campus each year. Scientists from around the globe will attend sessions, and workshop participants will have access to UGA’s high-performance computer complex. Topics to be studied this year include state-of-the-art simulations on solids, polymers, proteins, methodological developments and much more. While the workshop is not open to the public, UGA graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty members are welcome.
In the early days of Landau’s tenure at UGA, computer power on campus was insufficient to solve even modest problems in the notoriously complex world of physics. Then, in 1984, UGA bought its first Supercomputer, and a new world opened for scientists in many fields here, including physics. While it seemed powerful in the early ’80s, current computational power here is more than 10,000 times stronger, Landau said.
While computer power is impressive, perhaps the most important change over the past quarter century at the CSP has been the growth of faculty and students. Professors Heinz Bernd-Schüttler, Steven Lewis, Philip Stancil and Robin Shelton are affiliated with the center, along with seven adjunct professors and six postdocs. Michael Bachmann will join the center’s faculty in April. There is also one research scientist, an administrative coordinator and 10 graduate students-all of which make the center a busy place.
And Landau is as busy as ever, pushing the boundaries of computer power in solving physics problems once relegated to the theoretical alone.