ORIGINS – answers to existential questions

ORIGINS-eROSITA-Shapley-Galaxienhaufen Kopie

Source: eRosita

In 182 days, the eROSITA X-ray telescope on board the Russian-German "Spectrum-Roentgen-Gamma" (SRG) mission at a distance of 1.5 million kilometers to the Earth. It delivered around 165 gigabytes of data and millions of images, mainly of black holes in galaxies, but also of hot gas in galaxy clusters and in and around our galaxy. Galaxies are the islands of the cosmos and places where life originates. "Galaxies have a central black hole that permanently attracts matter and thus grows," explains Dr. Klaus Dolag from the University Observatory in Munich. "In this process, enormous amounts of energy are released, which in turn influence the development of a galaxy and thus the conditions for the formation of life.”

How is life formed?

Data from eROSITA and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) are highly welcome in the ORIGINS cluster of excellence:  Here, 120 research groups from the fields of astrophysics, particle physics and biophysics have been investigating how life develops in the first place since the end of 2018. The two Munich universities, Max Planck Institutes and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), together with international research partners, are involved in ORIGINS. The Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) provides research with supercomputing and storage capacity, its Centre for Virtualisation and Visualisation (V2C) and Virtualisation Technology supports the Virtual Reality Lab and the Cluster's Data Science Lab with professional experience in handling data and algorithms: "We need computing time to understand the complex relationships in the universe from the Big Bang to the origin of life. Numerical simulations are the modern workhorses of astro-, particle- and biophysics," explains Dr. Andreas Burkert, full professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) and head of the chair of theoretical and numerical astrophysics. He is one of the coordinators of ORIGINS. "The LRZ guarantees access to one of the world's most powerful supercomputers. In addition, we can use the wide range of IT services offered by the LRZ.

Is life a chemical or physical process?

A part of the high performance computing resources are reserved for the ORIGINS cluster so that models and algorithms can be developed from measurement data. The V2C helps researchers to visualize results and calculations in images, videos or spatial animations. This has already been a good tradition since 2006, when UNIVERSE, the first Cluster of Excellence, was launched to trace the origins of the universe. By 2018, around 250 researchers and 70 working groups from all over the world had published 4000 papers and 308 doctoral theses. At the end of the project, they were able to explain supernova explosions, report on new galaxies, explore stellar nucleosyntheses and what happens in black holes, and they discovered the tiny Higgs particle and high-energy cosmic neutrinos. Part of the UNIVERSE results can be seen in the Deutsches Museum, where the film "Ausgerechnet" (Of all things), which was produced at the SuperMUC and vividly reports what happened after the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago, is also shown.

How is the primeval soup made up?

ORIGINS is continuing this work - in addition to particle and astrophysicists, biophysicists and biochemists are now also involved. "Is life an inevitable physical and chemical process that can take place wherever the conditions are right," Burkert calls the central question. "To find an answer to this question, we now also need biophysics and chemistry." It brings new ideas, models, thoughts and expressions to the cluster. The first ORIGINS year was therefore an exciting discovery process, Burkert explains: "Biologists have different chains of thought than physicists. Before we could work together, the cluster had to make sure that everyone understood the language of the other scientist. As an astrophysicist searching for dark matter signatures in space, Burkert learned, for example, that particle physics already has methods for breaking down these signatures more precisely

In the search for the origin of life, ORIGINS therefore attaches great importance to interdisciplinary research: "Where phosphorus originates in the stars is something we have not really thought about in astrophysics," Burkert openly admits. Particle physics and biophysics now complement knowledge. One of ORIGINS' first findings: phosphorus is formed in stars and is hurled by their explosions into interstellar dust and gas clouds, in which planetary systems and comets are formed in turn. Interstellar clouds are interesting for ORIGINS, here scientists suspect many more building blocks of life. In the first year of ORIGINS more than 100 research contributions have already been made not only about stars, black holes or galaxies. In addition to the exploration of the universe, ORIGINS, which will be funded by the German Research Foundation with a total of 45 million Euros until 2026, wants to discover the recipe of the primeval soup, that unknown mixture of inorganic substances which made the emergence of life possible. If its composition can be reproduced in the laboratory, it will be easier to explain how unicellular organisms and the first living beings developed in it.

What do data report about life?

From what happens in space to the microscopically small compounds of life and further to the tiny atomic building blocks of matter, ORIGINS integrates a broad spectrum of research, and every scientific question produces data about data via measurements, photographs from telescopes and microscopes or model calculations. Astro- and particle physics have already advanced into the third dimension and into spatial representation with the help of the enormous computing power of supercomputers. Many of our research areas work with Big Data and have to evaluate and understand large, multi-dimensional data," says Burkert. In the cluster, they are therefore also working with the help of the LRZ on a Data Science Lab for new techniques and methods to collect, analyse and understand data: The 165 gigabytes of information that eROSITA recently sent to Earth are not only interesting in terms of content, but also as a means of testing processing and validation tools.