The Big Bang Theory Now Has An Internet Video: Harvard Scientists Simulation Creation Of The Universe

By Ben Wolford on May 8, 2014 5:38 PM EDT

Harvard astronomers have created the first realistic simulation of how the universe was formed. (Photo: Screenshot/Illustris)
Astronomers have created the first realistic simulation of how the universe was formed. (Photo: Screenshot/Illustris)

It's one thing to hear about the universe expanding, black holes bursting with energy, and galaxies spinning into existence. It's another to watch the past 13 billion years unravel in high definition.

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That's what astronomers from several universities, including Harvard and MIT, have done in creating "the first realistic virtual universe" and posting the video online (embedded below). The simulation, called Illustris, takes what scientists know about the composition and shape of the universe and generates a realistic visual timeline with a whopping 12 billion pixels.

The resolution and a new, more powerful computer enabled more accuracy and detail than other simulations. "Until now, no single simulation was able to reproduce the universe on both large and small scales simultaneously," says lead author Mark Vogelsberger, of MIT/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in an announcement. The findings were published this week in the journal Nature. "There is a certain ratio in the universe. We get the ratio right. That was not achieved before," Vogelsberger told MIT News.

The video, which lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, begins at 12 million years after the big bang and spans the subsequent 13 billion as dark matter yields to great clouds of swirling gas and dust. Galaxies form. The black holes at their cores shed powerful electromagnetic rays. It took the team of scientists five years to create it, using supercomputers to crunch the numbers. According to Harvard, there were so many calculations that a standard desktop computer would've taken 12,000 to compute them.

And that's not even the entire universe. The simulation displays a 350 million light-year-wide cube, and by the end of it, only 41,000 galaxies are formed. In other words, the simulation does not show what actually happened to bring the universe to its present state. (The galaxies aren't even in the actual places we find them in the sky.) Incredibly, what it does show is how the universe spat out the types of galaxies — spiral, cluster, etc. — that we can see with telescopes.

"For the past two decades, cosmologists have been unable to produce galaxies like the Milky Way in their simulations," David Spergel, an astronomer at Princeton University who was not involved in the research, told MIT News. "We have long debated whether this failure was due to complex dark matter physics, unknown stellar feedbacks, or the difficulties in simulating the highly non-linear multi-scale process of galaxy formation. ... With their simulations, [the researchers] finally produce galaxies that look like our own."

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