Evolution of the Universe Revealed in Computer Simulation

By Carl Engelking | May 7, 2014 2:59 pm

Grab some popcorn, turn on some Pink Floyd, and prepare to have your mind blown. Astronomers have created the most advanced simulation to date of the evolution of the universe over billions of years.

The simulation, called the Illustris, begins just 12 million years after the Big Bang and illustrates the formation of stars, heavy elements, galaxies, exploding supernovae and dark matter over the 14 billion years since. The simulation encapsulates the universe in a cube roughly 350 million light years on each side. The powerful simulation was presented in a paper published in the journal Nature.

Beefed up Computer Power

In order to capture the history of the universe in a box, you need a lot of computing power. Astronomers dedicated five years to programming Illustris, and it took 8,000 CPUs running in unison three months to crunch all the numbers that the model is based on, according to the Illustris website. It would have taken an average desktop computer over 2,000 years to complete the calculations.

Previous simulations, limited by computing power, either focused on a very small corner of the universe or displayed results in low resolution.

Researchers can use the tool to study cosmic phenomena, such as galaxy formation,  at specific points in the history of the universe.

And just like the actual universe, developers say there are still many areas of the simulated universe that remain unexplored as they continue to investigate its results.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: big bang, cosmology
  • Max Friedenberg

    How cool would it be to discover new phenomena in the simulation of the cosmos which are ultimately observed in the actual cosmos?

  • Robot Central

    What if life evolved in this simulation? Would the beings in there know? How would we feel about powering down the simulation or computers? #beyondawesome

    • emma852

      My Uncle Aaron just got an awesome 12 month
      old Audi A5 Convertible only from working part time off a home computer… find
      out here F­i­s­c­a­l­P­o­s­t­.­ℂ­o­m

    • cmp9969

      So the big bang would be the power of the computers turning on?


        n what if HE turn it off-do we evn feel its been off??

  • rogerklein

    so are we living in the MATRIX?

  • Parabola_Din

    Apparently to show that the universe has a sense of humor, I was listening to The Wall when I stumbled upon this. Imagine my smile at reading “Grab some popcorn, turn on some Pink Floyd, and prepare to have your mind blown.”

  • Daniel

    One thing that this implies is that intelligent life as we know it probably exists in pretty much every spiral galaxy at the same point in its evolution to our own, which means we probably will never encounter it, at least within our own space and time, given the enormous distances between galaxies. Perhaps someday, if our descendants are still alive when Andromeda finally collides with the Milky Way, we might finally have some close encounters of a similar kind; or maybe by some as yet TBD technology, our descendants encounter similar worlds in our own galaxy that have also reached a compatible phase of evolution.

    • OldFlonk

      It won’t make any difference when we form “Milkomeda”. Rember that the stars (and in most cases, stellar systems) won’t collide. There’s far more space between stars than we realize. The integration of the two galaxies will have significant gravitational effects, but it won’t necessarily bring stars closer together than they would be otherwise.

      • Daniel

        Yes, thanks. I do understand that to be the case, and the same TBD technology required to reach a compatible star system in our own galaxy would most likely be required to reach any acquired from Andromeda.

    • Will

      Daniel – love your thesis but I wonder if life as we know it is dependent on the recipe of Earth’s elements (and relation to our star) or something much larger and universal? I have to believe that the conditions for life here may very well have existed in trillions of other star-planet combinations billions of years ago. I’m guessing life, such as we humans, may have gone extinct countless times across the galaxies before we climbed out of the seas.

      • Daniel

        Will, I also happen to believe that life in some form has existed at every stage in the evolution of our universe, starting from its very creation in the Big Bang. I’m just not so sure that its development to a stage of consciousness that can reflect on the entirety of existence can occur prior to a compatible stage in the evolution of the entire universe itself.

        Here’s a related mind boggler. Given that every point in the universe is really just another point at the center of the entire universe, and that any observer, today, who looks out on it can see 13.8 billion light years distant in every direction, and any other observer who exists at the 13.8 billion light year limit of the first observer’s range can also see 13.8 billion light years distant in every direction, and so on, do you not see that the universe must in reality be infinite, and has been infinite at every stage in its evolution, perhaps even prior to the Big Bang itself? An early Greek scientist (whose name escapes me) used a similar logic based on a hypothetical archer who fires an arrow as far as he can see, then picks up the arrow and fires it again as far as he can see, to prove that the Earth’s horizon has no edge to it with an abyss that drops off into oblivion, but must continue indefinitely, and ultimately proved that the Earth is round.

        I think of this reality similar to how in mathematics there are greater and lesser magnitudes to infinity. For example, there are an infinite number of odd numbers, but also a “greater” infinity of all the natural numbers, and an even “greater” infinity of all the real numbers. Just so, the universe has always been infinite, no matter how “large” its apparent dimensions at any given stage of evolution.

  • herbdreyer

    How about 1 really small slice of time in three minutes–if you can do 14 billion years in three minutes then take us in close and let’s see the details of what you have conjured ?

    • Daniel

      The problem with this suggestion is a matter of resolution. The whole simulation is based on historical snapshots we currently have of the universe (through telescopes, which always see into the past) going back nearly 14 billion years and the mathematics of physical laws (physics) as we have been best able to understand it to explain the apparent visible changes to the physical universe over time. The resolution of the simulation is a matter of combining known observations with that best understood physics, iterated over the vast time period (14 billion years) observed and displaying the result in a human-consumable time frame. Starting from close to the most distant point of observations, it takes enormous computing power just to simulate large-scale changes in the universe over the 14 billion year period, and see all the changes within just a few minutes, with a very large scale resolution as the necessary result.

      To simulate this entire 14 billion years with, for example, 1-second resolution would likely be impossible to compute given our current data and computing power, and of course, you would require a huge amount of time to actually show it in any detail, which would be far greater than humans could witness, much less appreciate.

      If you want to see some fascinating and relatively small scale stop-motion detail of not quite so distant phenomena, astronomers have created time-lapse video of actual observations, for example, of stars violently orbiting the black hole at the center of our galaxy, and also video of outer planets orbiting the Sun (created from Voyager snapshots).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Jonathan Saunders

    I am perplexed with simplicity we often place on the evolution of our existence. It is a nice display but far from the reality. Conjuring interest in future exploration is not a simple task by any means. Our attention span is shorting with further advancements in technology but we should never substitute facts with synthetic reality. At next pass please consider including some planets and space craft. Keep it simple though. Nice job guys!

  • Don’t Even Try It!

    What if we are only a simulation inside someone else’s box? Would we ever really know?

  • NavyBlue1962

    Wow! I didn’t even know they had video cameras that long ago.

  • Edward Oshel

    So what are those explosions? At first I thought supernovae but then realized that they span clusters of galaxies and are millions of light years across?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Dave Bash

    I wonder how ( or if) they validated this model. Any thoughts?


    when can we able to communicate with HIM aftr being such small entity of his whole simualtion??


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