x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Collaboration is key to Big Bang secrets

Researchers have developed a newer, faster way of connecting their work across nations and institutions.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, welcomes the launch of Ankabut, a new internet network for Universities in UAE at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.
Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, welcomes the launch of Ankabut, a new internet network for Universities in UAE at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // Looking to reveal truths about dark energy and matter, Moroccan scientist Rajaa Cherkaoui el Moursli has worked in collaboration with thousands of researchers from around the world to hurl subatomic particles into each other.

She was among the researchers at Khalifa University's Information and Communication Technology Research Forum yesterday, who stressed the need for collaboration between countries and the technology that makes it possible to do so.

Scientists like Prof el Moursli hope that when speeding particles in the 7,000-tonne looped Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland crash into each other, the experiment will re-create, on a smaller scale, the moment billions of years ago that scientists believe caused the universe to take shape.

As difficult as that may seem, a large part of the challenge is processing data from the monstrous collider, built by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN).

The CERN particle experiments currently involve more than 240 institutions across 45 countries.

"This is one of the largest, most elaborate physics experiments in the world, and we need the capability for bulk processing and analysis," she said. "This is not something that one country could do alone."

Another researcher, Dr Torild van Eck, demonstrated how a vast communication network is used to build and co-ordinate an infrastructure for earthquake monitoring throughout Europe. A senior scientist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, he has helped to build large-scale broadband seismology projects with digital data collected from dispersed stations.

The conference was held as Ankabut, the UAE's new National Research and Education Network (NREN), unveiled its logo.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, held a ceremonial video conference from Khalifa University's Abu Dhabi campus with academics at UAE University in Al Ain by using the network and that currently connects nearly 30 campuses in the UAE.

The network can transmit data at 10 gigabits a second, about 2,000 times faster than a typical broadband connection. This allows better collaboration between local researchers, as research cycles that would typically take months of number crunching between institutions are reduced to days. It also provides a link to Internet2 in the US and other NRENs around the world.

The bulk of funding for the network has come from the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Fund, a Government venture initiated by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, the UAE's internet regulator.

Dr Eesa Bastaki, the chief officer of the fund, noted at the conference that collaboration with researchers overseas is vital to the country's goal of shifting from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based one, and currently "the UAE is not yet creating any knowledge".

"In the UAE, professors are doing research to get promoted or to have a paper published, and that's not how we identify needs or links with industries," said Dr Bastaki, who is also chairman of the UAE's section of the non-profit association the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "The UAE has not proven itself yet, and industry does not want to talk to us until we prove that the research we do here will serve them."

He pointed out that the UAE has few patents and little outside funding for research. However, he said that should improve once local scientists are able to work closely with one another and their counterparts overseas.

Ankabut, which means "spider" in Arabic, was launched by Khalifa University and currently threads a network together with campuses of UAE University, Zayed University, the Institute of Applied Technology, the Higher Colleges of Technology, NYU Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi University, American University of Sharjah, the American University of Dubai and Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai. Additionally, Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, The Petroleum Institute, Al Hosn University and Tawam Hospital have expressed interest in connecting. They hope that the network will eventually link all local universities, government departments, public libraries, health service centres, museums and some private research companies.

"The network has really brought down borders between the universities, and it is fascinating to see how around the world networks like these are used for everything, across the sciences," said Steven Winstanley, the acting chief operations officer for Ankabut, which is a non-profit organisation.

econroy@thenational.ae