If you’re a PlayStation 3 fan, or if you just received one as a holiday gift, you may be able to do more with the system than just gaming. A group of gravity researchers have configured 16 PlayStation 3’s together to create a type of supercomputer that is helping them estimate properties of the gravitational waves produced by the merger of two black holes. The research team from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, calls their configuration the Gravity Grid, and they say the Sony PlayStation 3 has a number of unique features that make it particularly suited for scientific computation. Equally important, the raw computing power per dollar provided by the PS3 is significantly higher than anything else on the market today.
PlayStation 3s have also been used by the Folding@Home project, to harness the PS3’s technology to help study how proteins are formed in the human body and how they sometimes form incorrectly. This helps in research in several diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, and even Mad-Cow disease.
The PS3 uses a powerful new processor called the Cell Broadband Engine to run its highly realistic games, and can connect to the Internet so gamers can download new programs and take each other on.
The PlayStation 3 cluster used by the gravity research team can solve some astrophysical problems, such as ones involving many calculations but low memory usage, equaling the speed of a rented super-computer.
“If we had rented computing time from a supercomputer center it would have cost us about $5,000 to run our [black hole] simulation one time. For this project we ran our simulation several dozens of times to test different parameters and circumstances,” study author Lior Burko told Inside Science News Service.
One of the unique features of the PS3 is that it is an open platform, where different system software can be run on it. It’s special processor has a main CPU (called the PPU) and six special compute engines (called SPUs) available for raw computation. Moreover, each SPU performs vector operations, which implies that they can compute on multiple data, in a single step.
But the low cost is especially attractive to university researchers. The Gravity Grid team received a partial donation from Sony, and are using “stock” PS3s for the cluster, with no hardware modifications and are networked together using inexpensive equipment.
Gravitational waves are “ripples” in space-time that travel at the speed of light. These were theoretically predicted by Einstein’s general relativity, but have never been directly observed. Other research is being done in this area by the newly constructed NSF LIGO laboratory and various other such observatories in Europe and Asia. The ESA and NASA also have a mission planned in the near future – the LISA mission – that will also be attempting to detect these waves. To learn more about these waves and the recent attempts to observe them, please visit the LISA mission website.
Sources: USA Today, Gravity Grid