It’s clear, at least to me, that we are officially living in the future. I say that partially in a tongue and cheek manner, and partially in a serious way. Sometimes, when I watch Star Trek, I wonder how long it will be until some of those things are real. Maybe not shooting lasers, but certainly, the technology behind some things could become a reality any time soon. Am I wrong? Which is why this is so incredibly fascinating to me. We now have a simulation of how the universe was formed. Illustris: The Next Generation (IllustrisTNG) has taken new computational methods in order to achieve the first of its kind universe-scale simulation.
The insights gleaned from the simulation have given researchers a new understanding of how black holes affect the distribution of the ever-elusive dark matter throughout galaxies. Not only could these powerful gravity wells be preventing older galaxies from producing new stars, they could also be influencing the emergence of cosmic structures. A single simulation run required 24,000 processors and a timespan of more than two months. Germany’s fastest mainframe computer, the Hazel Hen machine at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart, ran the simulation twice.
Why is this important? IllustrisTNG made predictions by modeling the evolution of millions of galaxies in a representative region of a universe. The cube-shaped area has sides that are nearly 1 billion light-years long. Which is a length that I can’t even begin to fathom myself. In the previous version (called Illustris), the model area’s sides were only 350 million light-years long. The updated program also introduced some crucial physical processes that had not been included in previous simulations. These updated features allowed IllustrisTNG to model a universe remarkably similar to our own. For the first time, the clustering patterns of the simulated galaxies demonstrated a high degree of realism in comparison to the patterns we see from powerful telescopes.
This allows researchers to recreate the formation and evolution of galaxies over time. Or at least model the largest scale structures like magnetic fields. Which is all incredibly amazing, in my opinion. It is important to note that the simulations aren’t perfect recreations of the real universe. And of course, they all contain drawbacks. But simulations are still important to help scientists gain insight into how the universe works, test theories and ideas, and figure out how to actually look in real life for effects they see in their simulation.
Computers can do so much for us these days, which is why I think this is just another thing that can be done. Which brings me back to this whole Star Trek thing. I don’t mean that to sound facetious, but it just amazes me how far we have come with technology over the last few years. Even decades, really. Google an article that was written on the iPhone 4, which was developed not that long ago, and then Google one about an iPhone X. You will see the difference in what we were talking about back then, from a technology standpoint. But also what was important to us then, versus now. Then we were just in awe of the fact that we could have a tiny computer in our pockets. Now we want facial recognition software to know who we are in order to unlock our phones.
To bring this back to the simulation – what this means is limitless. This could give us so much information on all kinds of things – both from a scientific perspective as well as a technological one. I will continue to say this, but I am truly amazed at how far we have come with technology and science over the last few years.