Professor Steven Brandt Helps Scientists Unmask the Most Mysterious Figures in the Cosmos

by Jeremy Harper

LSU professor Steven Brandt is using computer science to help researchers explore some of the most enduring and elusive mysteries in the universe — and also to solve complex problems that threaten Louisiana’s coastline.

Brandt, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, earned a Ph.D. in relativistic astrophysics for his research on black holes. Today, he serves as a coordinator for the Einstein Toolkit, an open, community-developed software infrastructure for relativistic astrophysics that helps researchers simulate black holes. He’s also involved with the Coastal Hazards Research Collaboratory at LSU, which uses related software frameworks to model complex coastal events such as storm surge, erosion and oil spills.

At LSU, Brandt teaches an introductory computer science course in the spring and works with Dr. Costas Busch to teach a multiprocessor programming course in the fall. He has also co-taught a course called Scientific Computing, in which students learn about high-performance computing and numerical simulations.

Where Black Holes and Computer Science Meet

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Brandt was the first graduate student of Edward Seidel, who went on to become founding director of LSU’s Center for Computation & Technology.

Seidel helped introduce Brandt to the fascinating intersection of computer science and astrophysics. Computers are necessary to work through much of math associated with black holes. Brandt, a science fiction fan who writes sci-fi and fantasy novels in his free time, says he was drawn to the complex and intriguing problems related to black holes.

“The Einstein equations are too complex to do much with by hand, so numerical simulations are the way you have to go,” Brandt says. “I was kind of lucky that I found Ed Seidel because I wasn’t really aware that kind of thing was an option until I ran into him.”

After graduation Brandt spent time in Germany, during which he published a paper on a simple construction of initial data for multiple black holes that has been cited more than 450 times. After post-doctoral work at Penn State, Brandt went into private industry, working in computer science. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of good job prospects for physics professors at the time,” he says.

Twelve years ago, when Seidel started the Center for Computation & Technology, he asked Brandt to come onboard. “I’ve been working mostly in computer science since that time,” Brandt says.

But he says he has stayed connected to black hole research through his efforts to enhance the Einstein Toolkit. The toolkit can also aid research on other complex phenomena, such as neutron star collisions, supernovas and gamma ray bursts, he says.

Brandt is also involved with a group of researchers at LSU who use part of the software framework to analyze the effects of winds, tides, waves and currents on large bodies of water, which is useful to predict the effects of large storms approaching the coast.

Aiding Next-Generation Programmers

Brandt takes time each year to reach out to younger computer enthusiasts, coordinating a summer camp called the Beowulf Bootcamp to teach programming to high-school students and teachers. The camp offers offers students and teachers the opportunity to work with advanced research technology not usually available in their classrooms.

“We just want to make high-school students aware of what type of options they have to work in the field of high-performance computing,” he says. “It also gives them an awareness of how many ways it touches their lives and how important it is to our future.”

For students considering a career in computing or science, Brandt advocates developing a strong background in programming. “You need a strong ability to be one of the people who can tell the machines what to do; otherwise you’ll be one of the people who is told what to do by the machines,” he says.

He also suggests students look at the field of high-performance computing, which explores the use of parallel processing, including supercomputers, for running advanced applications.

“That’s a place where there is still a lot of need and there’s still a lot of jobs,” he says. “And there are lots of sexy and exciting problems to work on.

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