Research Feature . . .
GATHERING ON THE GRID -- BLACK HOLE DEBATE KICKS OF SERIES
By Pam Frost Gorder
Any pretence of decorum at the conference “Quantum Theory of Black Holes” ended early on, when the first speaker drew a smiley face on one of his colleagues with a dry erase marker.
That the speaker was here in Columbus while his colleague was sitting in a room at the Max Planck Institute in Germany was made possible by the fact that the conference was held on the Access Grid, a kind of educational computer network similar to the Internet that connects more than 200 universities worldwide.
Twenty physicists, the best and brightest in fields such as string theory, met on the Grid from September 17-19 for the inaugural workshop of the new Ohio Center for Theoretical Science (OCTS).
OCTS was created in January 2004 with the mission of promoting interdisciplinary and long-distance teaching, learning, and research activities. Administratively located in the Department of Physics, OCTS hopes to integrate scientific and non-scientific discussion and to become the meeting place for the exchange of thoughts across disciplines. In that way, it aims to be a leader in state, national, and international research.
Stephen Pinsky, professor of physics and director of OCTS, said the Grid could ultimately give the university more flexibility for teaching classes. Ohio State will be able to pool its resources with other institutions to offer courses remotely via a Grid node in the new Physics Research Building, which is set to open in November 2004.
William Saam, chair of the Department of Physics, noted that OCTS “will bring together a community of students and faculty from around the world, enhancing both their work and the role of Ohio State in the national and international science communities."
The OCTS conference series is the first step in that plan, and shows the potential of the Grid for advancing research, said Richard Freeman, dean and distinguished professor of mathematical and physical sciences, as he introduced the black hole workshop.
“This conference shows what the leading edge of technology is doing for the future of science,” he said.
Speakers in Columbus were broadcast from the Ohio Supercomputer Center to sites around the country and to Canada and Germany. People in those remote locations appeared in windows on a giant screen at the front of the room.
The screen doubled as a dry erase board and presentation space, which enabled prominent physicist Andrew Strominger of Harvard University to pause during his talk to mischievously draw a smiley on someone from Max Planck.
Samir Mathur, professor of physics and co-organizer of the workshop, was responsible for the laid-back atmosphere. He invited people with many different points of view on black holes, because he was “hoping for a few good arguments.”
He got them.
String theory -- the notion in quantum mechanics that protons, electrons, and other fundamental particles in the universe are made up of tiny, vibrating strings -- could potentially answer many questions in theoretical physics. But it raises other questions, and scientists are working to explain mathematically whether black holes could even exist in a universe made of strings.
According to Mathur, black holes could simply be wound-up tangles of strings, or “fuzzballs.” Some conference attendees were excited about that theory’s potential; others took issue. And it all took place in real time, regardless of the distance separating the researchers.
“The debate gave us insight into questions we should try to address next,” Mathur said.
Future OCTS gatherings will cover a broad range of theoretical research. For example, the center is organizing a conference for the fall of 2005 on the biophysics of membranes; that event will involve faculty from the Department of Physics, the College of Biological Sciences, and the College of Medicine and Public Health.
Meanwhile, next January’s workshop will concern gravitational
lensing, a method for detecting dark, massive objects in space.