Zsuzsa Marka Helps Develop an Astrophysics Institute to Harness Cosmic Data

Columbia University is a partnering organization on a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant to develop the concept for a Scalable Cyberinfrastructure Institute for Multi-Messenger Astrophysics (SCIMMA).

Multi-messenger astrophysics is an area in which physicists use observations of light, gravitational waves and particles to understand some of the most extreme events in the universe. The observation of gravitational waves and light from the collision of neutron stars in 2017, for instance, helped explain the origin of heavy elements while allowing for the independent measurement of the expansion of the universe. It also confirmed the association between neutron-star mergers and gamma-ray bursts.

The new institute, or SCIMMA, will aim to develop algorithms, databases, and computing and networking cyberinfrastructure that help scientists interpret multi-messenger observations. The institute will also promote global collaborations that transcend the capabilities of any single team or university.

“The Columbia Experimental Gravity Group has been pioneering multi-messenger data analysis since the group was formed a decade and a half ago,” says Zsuzsa Marka, an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia’s Astrophysics Lab who leads SCIMMA for Columbia. “Our goal is to find and characterize distant cosmic sources that emit gravitational waves, light, as well as particles (e.g. neutrinos).”

Though the intent to uncovering cosmic transient sources never changed, the data generated from those sources changed rapidly as more effective detectors were built. “This astrophysics data revolution thus requires a strong and reliable coordinated cyberinfrastructure innovation like SCIMMA,” adds Marka, a member of the Data Science Institute (DSI).

The project’s two-year conceptualization phase began Sept. 1, 2019. Along with enabling a seamless analysis of disparate datasets by supporting the rich interplay of software and data services, work in this phase will include the development of novel education and training curricula designed to enhance the STEM workforce. That initiative will be led by Columbia’s Marka, who has an expertise in helping students and others understand how advanced techniques such as machine learning are used to search for high-energy neutrinos and gravitational-waves.

“SCIMMA is bringing data scientists, computer scientists, astronomers, astro-particle physicists and gravitational-wave physicists together to leverage NSF investments in large astronomical facilities and cyberinfrastructure,” says Amy Walton, program director of NSF’s Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure. These investments include the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), and multiple cosmic ray and neutrino observatories.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is the lead on the NSF grant, and the other collaborators on the project are Cornell University Center for Advanced Computing and the Department of Astronomy; Las Cumbres Observatory; Michigan State University; Pennsylvania State University-University Park; University of California-Santa Barbara; National Center for Supercomputing Applications,  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Texas Advanced Computing Center at The University of Texas at Austin; and the University of Washington.

— Robert Florida, Data Science Institute

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