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04/19/2011 - "Reconstructing the Earliest Stars" in Physics Today

(Originally published by SLAC)

April 19, 2011

The April 2011 issue of Physics Today features a cover story on how cosmologists use computer simulations to gain insight into astronomical objects that lie beyond the reach of the most powerful telescopes -- a piece written by Tom Abel of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.

Physics TodayThis simulation shows one of the first protostars forming, 200 million years after the Big Bang. (Image and simulation courtesy of Ralf Kaehler, Matthew Turk and Tom Abel.)

The article, entitled "The First Stars, as Seen by Supercomputers," (subscription required) describes how the simulations track the complicated interplay between gravity and gases in the early universe before the first stars formed. It is accompanied by images from several simulations, including a cover image of a coalescing protostar. According to Abel, creating computer programs that simulate what happened in the early universe is only half the battle. Then researchers must be able to see and understand what they've got.

"It takes a very large effort to write the software to visualize the complicated data we are working with," Abel said. KIPAC's Ralf Kaehler "does an amazing job with that. Even with software in hand, though, many creative decisions have to be made: Which data to show? The density, the temperature, the chemical composition? How to map it to color? What would a particular telescope see? We balance many possibilities for how to best convey the information to the audience."

Simulation by Matthew Turk, University of California at San Diego; Brian O'Shea, Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Tom Abel. Image by Ralf Kaehler and Tom Abel, Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.

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