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A Virtual Universe, To-Scale

February 28, 2018


Since the dawn of multimedia history, virtual reality has been an idolized concept that has captivated all walks of life, making us dream of an alternate universe where anything is possible and the science as we know it is warped.


Today, it's a reality. You can find VR systems on the front shelves of any Target, Walmart, or Best Buy you walk into. Now, we can visualize better than ever: the formation of the universe.


For the first time, we can test all of the theories we have about how the universe formed and the laws that govern it, by plugging them into a new, web-based virtual model of the cosmos. A simulation that you could use!


A team of physicists led by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics released Illustris, a simulation so complex that it took the team five years to design, and the calculations had to be run on the equivalent of 8,000 desktop computers for three months. More than just cool graphics and animations, Illustris is a working visualization of lots of physical data, which allows us to see how they play out based on our current understanding of the physical universe.


Because there’s a lot we don’t know about the universe, but there’s also a lot that we think we do know. For instance, we think it started with a Big Bang. And fractions of a second after that, space itself expanded faster than the speed of light, marbling spacetime with shock waves of gravity. Dark matter began to clump where gravity was strongest, developing into a web-like pattern. This is where Illustris begins, a mere 12 million years after the Big Bang.


From there, it pretty accurately models the universe’s evolution to the present day. You can watch visible matter collect into webs, stars form from clouds of hydrogen and helium, and planets begin to form as well. As time goes on, more than 41,000 galaxies form in familiar shapes - spiral galaxies like our own, and elliptical ones.


All of this happens in Illustris, which represents a cube of space 350 million light-years wide.



That’s large enough, astronomers think, to be representative of the known universe. And it leaves us with a present-day cosmos remarkably similar to ours. But only similar, not exactly the same, of course, and therein lies the beauty of the simulation.


Certain details, like how galaxies merge, are occurring differently in Illustris than they do in the observed universe. Astronomers have yet to comb through the simulation thoroughly enough to pinpoint the reasons for these discrepancies.


But when we do, these will let us refine our theories about the universe - places where we can begin to look closer, and rethink what we think we know.


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Sources: This story was originally published on SciShow Space. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest in the subject. Green, Hank. "Solar Flares and a Virtual Universe." SciShow Space, YouTube, 15 May 2014. Web video.

Vogelsberger, Mark, and Volker, Springel, et al. "About Illustris." Virtual simulation.

Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "A Virtual Reality, To-Scale." SkyFeed, 28 Feb. 2018. Web article.

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