Ed Seidel has worked on the problem of simulating black hole collisions
on computers for most of his scientific career. After graduate school, he started on black hole collisions in the 1980s working under the supervision of David Hobill and Larry Smarr at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. When David left the NSCA in 1991, Ed took over leadership of the research group on black holes. Larry is the true father of work on merging black holes, and Ed tells Annalie some of the history of this in his interview. Included in this story is how NCSA created the Mosaic web browser that opened up the World Wide Web for use by all people, not just the physicists for whom it was created. The most popular web browsers in use today (Internet Explorer, Netscape, Mozilla) are all descended directly from Mosaic.
Ed moved to the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, Germany, in 1996, where he built up a larger group of scientists working on black hole mergers than had existed anywhere before. Ed wanted to put together a team with specialists in all the different areas that are needed for the problem: relativity, computer programming, visualization. When Ed tells Annalie about how teams of scientists work together, he is speaking from his own experience.
In Germany, Ed inspired a number of initiatives that have had a lasting effect on research in this field. His group created a computer program environment called Cactus, which allowed specialists to write programs that would work together with the programs of other specialists, and which in addition would work on any kind of computer from a laptop to the kind of supercomputer with thousands of processors that Joan Centrella showed Annalie in her interview. Many other groups around the world now use this tool and benefit from sharing the computer programs each other writes. Many of the leading scientists in this field around the world have at one time or another been members of Ed’s group, including most of the scientists who eventually made the “breakthrough” that made possible efficient long-term computer simulations of black hole orbits and mergers. (This breakthrough is discussed more in the menu item “Who is Joan Centrella?” on the web page for Annalie’s interview with Joan.)
In Germany Ed also put together international collaborations within Europe of scientists working on these simulations, and he also worked very hard on global efforts (called grid computing) by computer scientists to allow scientists around the world to share computing resources and work together. Ed won the 2006 Sidney Fernbach Award for his work with Cactus and black holes.
In 2003 Ed returned to the USA to found and direct the newly formed Center for Computation and Technology at the Louisiana State University, where he extended his team-building orientation across many of the science areas that use supercomputers. When Annalie interviewed Ed in Edinburgh, that was his job, and he talked to her about the variety of problems that shared common computational challenges, from modeling the impact of hurricanes on the flood defenses of New Orleans to understanding how to make a really absorbent diaper!
But in September 2008 it was announced that Ed was moving to the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which is the body that distributes US federal government support for a broad range of sciences. Ed first became the director of the Office of Cyberinfrastructure. This mouthful of a name basically means that Ed guides the national US spending on supercomputers, high-speed networks, and software that support scientific research at universities. Then in 2010 he became an Assistant Director of NSF with responsibility for the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. It seems that the National Science Foundation agrees with what Ed was telling Annalie, that research in black holes is a perfect foundation for understanding the needs of research across the scientific spectrum!
No biography of Ed should leave the impression that his only interest is in computers. The film of Ed shows him relaxing with Annalie after the interview by playing Hawaiian slack-key guitar. Ed is also an accomplished skier who has skied in the US, Europe, and even in the Himalayas.
Larry Smarr’s web page: http://lsmarr.calit2.net/
Web page about the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners_Lee
At the end of Ed’s interview he plays guitar music by the great slack-key guitar master Ozzie Kotani. We thank Ozzie for his kind permission to allow us to include the music in our film.