Skip to content

News Center

Home > News Center > Publications > EnVision



Simulating the Formation of the Universe’s First Star


lassical music lovers have always appreciated orchestral conductors with great dynamic range. Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, and Bruno Walter were renowned for making symphony orchestras both thunder and whisper. Walter in particular won a reputation for the ability to serve up the tinkle of a triangle and an actual cannon in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Festival Overture. From pianissimo to fortissimo, Bruno Walter explored the very limits of audibility. And if there is a Bruno Walter of cosmology, it is surely Michael L. Norman, a physics professor at UC San Diego.

Figure 1: Very First Protostellar Object

Norman’s cosmological structure code, Enzo, can span 12 orders of magnitude in space and time. It can pursue the slightest gravitational perturbation of a nearly uniform primal gas—the tinkling triangle of astrophysics—all the way to the cannon-roaring condensations of gas, crushed into volumes so much tinier than the initial volume that the ratio can only be expressed in scientific notation: 10-30. Enzo can follow the story from the consequences of the Big Bang to the coalescence of the first star in exquisite detail; indeed, in “quadruple precision,” in a manner faithful to the best idea cosmologists have of the initial physics and chemistry of the process.

With former graduate students Greg Bryan (now a lecturer at Oxford University) and Tom Abel (now a visiting scientist at Cambridge University), Norman has submitted a paper on the most recent Enzo calculations as an entry for this year’s Gordon Bell Award. The prize, named after a pioneer in high-performance computing, is given annually at the Supercomputing conference for the best performance improvement in a parallel computing application.

Norman’s group also has written another paper focused on its results, which will appear in Science in the coming months.

The physics of present-day star formation is complicated, because the interstellar medium is itself composed of the remnants of previous generations of stars, including not only hydrogen and helium but also heavier elements, in abundances important enough to affect the star-formation process.

“In contrast,” said Norman, “the formation of the first star takes place in a much simpler environment: the gas is only hydrogen and helium, and the initial conditions can be precisely specified by cosmological models. It’s a clean initial-value problem—and it’s the starting point for the formation of all other structure in the universe, from galaxies to superclusters.” Using the NPACI Blue Horizon supercomputer at SDSC, Bryan, Abel, and Norman simulated the condensation of the universe’s first star (Figure 1).

They began with what most astronomers believe made up the material composition of the universe: 10 percent ordinary “baryonic” matter—composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons; and 90 percent cold dark matter, which is exotic, nonbaryonic material. Cold dark matter is a generic name for species of weakly interacting particles that are cold—with negligible velocity dispersion—at the era when the universe first became matter dominated. The properties of cold dark matter allow tiny pre-existing fluctuations (the tinkling triangles of astrophysics, if you will) to grow on all scales without hindrance.


While the composition of cold dark matter is unknown, its mass can be estimated and its role in gravitational condensation can be calculated. The salient feature of cold dark matter is the power spectrum of its density fluctuations—there are more flutes than cannons—suggesting that cosmic structure is formed “bottom-up,” by the gravitational amplification of initially small fluctuations.

So the computational problem becomes: how do you follow a reasonably large sample of the infant universe as its hydrodynamic perturbations lead to a collapsing protogalactic object (millions of solar masses) and, within that, to protostellar (hundreds of solar masses) clouds? More specifically, how do cosmologists follow all that with the correct chemistry and thermodynamics in a properly expanding cosmological space-time continuum?

The gravitational problem alone has been attacked by N-body simulation, but Enzo is much more ambitious, just as a great Romantic symphony is more complex than a baroque country dance. Enzo’s time-dependent calculation is carried out over the full three dimensions on a structured, adaptive grid hierarchy that follows the collapsing protogalaxy and subsequent protostellar cloud to near-stellar density, starting from primordial fluctuations a few million years after the Big Bang. Enzo thus combines a number of computational modules. There is a hydrodynamic solver for the primordial gas, an N-body (particle) solver for the collisionless cold dark matter, a special solver specifically for the gravitational field, and a 12-species chemical reaction solver for the primordial gas chemistry.

“We can’t do all this on a uniform mesh,” said Norman, “because there is no computer large enough to contain all the spatiotemporal scales we must follow.” Instead, the researchers use structured adaptive mesh refinement, a way of adding octaves to the cosmic range. While solving the equations on a uniform grid, the code follows the quality of the solution and, when necessary, adds an additional fine mesh over any region that requires enhanced resolution. The finer mesh obtains its boundary conditions from the coarse mesh. The finer grid is also used to improve the solution on its parent. As the evolution continues, the finer mesh may need to be moved, resized, or removed. Even finer meshes may be required, producing a tree structure that may continue to any depth.

Enzo spawns a new mesh when any cell accumulates enough mass that refinement is needed to preserve a given mass resolution in the solution, or when a minimum length criterion to resolve perturbations is exceeded (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Another Fine Mesh
( 2001 Tom Abel; used by permission)

Norman pointed out that a fluctuation containing the mass of the Milky Way galaxy will collapse by a factor of about 1,000 before it comes into dynamical equilibrium. A code to follow such a collapse would need to have a spatial dynamic range of 105. Resolving the formation of individual stars—even very large ones—within a galaxy-full of gas would require even more resolution, a spatial dynamic range on the order of 1020. The work just completed is at a spatial dynamic range of 1012—roughly the ratio of the diameter of the Earth to that of a human cell.


Enzo is implemented in C++, an object-oriented high-level language, with some compute-intensive kernels in Fortran 77. The object-oriented approach provides two benefits: encapsulation (a single mesh is the basic “object,” or building block) and extensibility (new physics may be added easily at all levels).

“The hard part in running Enzo on a variety of platforms is parallelization and load balancing,” said Robert Harkness, a computational astrophysicist at SDSC who is working with Norman to prepare the Enzo code for runs across the TeraGrid. This is the orchestral equivalent of deciding how many violins, violas, cellos, and bass viols will make up the string section. “We are using a version running under the Message-Passing Interface, which allows us to exploit the object-oriented design by distributing objects over the processors, rather than attempting to distribute only the smallest grids themselves,” said Harkness. “The small subgrids are generally numerous, and many may be quite short-lived, enabling them to be created and removed on a single processor.”

Other innovations include the creation of “sterile objects” that contain information about the sizes and locations of grids, but without the solutions. Each processor can hold the entire hierarchy of grids as sterile objects as it works the solution on any grid or grids that are local to the processor, which reduces communications traffic. Ultimately, however, the process of obtaining boundary values for the root (largest) grid is nonlocal; the sterile objects enable the code to “pipeline” the global communications so that they are received first where the solution can be examined first.

Accurate description of the positions of grids and particles within the problem domain requires the code to work at “extended precision” (double, where a single-precision word is 64 bits long; quadruple on 32-bit words). “Fortunately,” Harkness said, “Blue Horizon supplies 128-bit arithmetic.” The researchers have developed methods of restricting the 128-bit work to only those parts of the code that require it, only when necessary.


While Enzo in its present form is challenging enough for current platforms, the possibility of distributing it across the TeraGrid beckons—and together with that, the necessity to increase the dynamic range of the code. At present, it begins with what might be called a statistically significant fraction of the early universe—a large volume of isotropic cold dark matter and gas—and proceeds to follow the physics down to protogalactic and protostellar objects.

A key test of the model physics will come when the dynamic range is extended to the level of the first star itself, as its gravitational collapse overcomes its radiative expansion, enabling the fusion of hydrogen into helium with the release of energy in its core. It is the progress of this reaction that leads to the fusion of helium into nuclei of heavier elements that eventually influence the formation of next-generation stars.

“It seems that it will be possible, using this method, to extend the dynamic range on both ends of the spectrum,” Norman said. In orchestral terms, the thunder will be more thunderous and the whispers will be all but inaudible—and the supercomputer platforms will be, collectively, the universe’s largest, noisiest concert hall. —MM

Michael L. Norman

Tom Abel
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge University

Greg Bryan
MIT, Oxford University