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The First Realistic Virtual Universe

The Universe was born in the wild fury of the Inflationary Big Bang almost 14 billion years ago. It started out as an exquisitely tiny Patch, no bigger than a proton, and in the smallest fraction of a second began to balloon exponentially to attain macroscopic size–only to grow and evolve into the beautiful and mysterious Cosmos that is our home. In May 2014, astronomers announced that they have created the first realistic virtual Universe using a supercomputer simulation called Illustris. This remarkable numerical simulation of Cosmic structure formation reproduces both large- and smaller-scale structures of a representative region of the Universe from its primordial beginnings to its current state.

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Illustris can recreate 13 billion years of Cosmic evolution within a cube that is 350 million light-years on a side with unprecedented resolution.

“Until now, no single simulation was able to reproduce the Universe on both large and small scales simultaneously,” noted lead author Dr. Mark Vogelsberger in a May 7, 2014 Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) Press Release. Dr. Vogelsberger, who is of MIT/CfA in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conducted the work in collaboration with researchers at several institutions, including the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies in Germany.

The results are published in the May 8, 2014 issue of the journal Nature.

Earlier efforts to simulate the evolution of the Universe were limited because of a lack of necessary computing power, as well as the complexities of the underlying physics. As a result those programs were hampered in their resolution, or forced to focus only on a small region of the Cosmos. Previous simulations also had problems modeling the complex feedback from stellar formation, supernova blasts, and supermassive black holes. Supermassive black holes are thought to dwell in the secretive hearts of most, if not all, large galaxies, and they weigh millions to billions of times more than our Sun.

Certainly one of the greatest triumphs of modern cosmology is that a model with only six parameters can explain most of the observational data from the first minutes of our Universe’s Inflationary Big Bang beginnings to the present-day. The Standard Model indicates that 95% if the modern Universe is made up of strange and mysterious dark matter and dark energy. Ironically, modeling the dynamics of the runt of the Cosmic litter–the remaining 5%–which is so-called “ordinary”, “normal,” baryonic matter–has proved to be the most difficult. Baryonic matter is the familiar atomic matter that composes the Periodic Table–the stuff of stars, planets, moons, and people! Dark matter is thought to be composed of exotic non-atomic particles that do not interact with light or any other form of electromagnetic radiation. As such, dark matter is transparent and invisible–but scientists are almost certain that it is there because it does exert a gravitational influence on objects that can be observed, such as stars and glowing clouds of gas. Dark energy is even more mysterious and bizarre than the dark matter, and it accounts for the lion’s share of the mass-energy of the Cosmos. Dark energy is thought to be a property of Space itself, and it is causing the Universe to accelerate in its expansion. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the researchers who discovered the existence of the dark energy.

It is currently thought that about 70% of the Universe is dark energy! Dark matter accounts for a comparatively small 25%, while so-called “ordinary,” visible, atomic matter is a comparative rarity.

Therefore, the Universe is primarily composed of bizarre, invisible stuff, the nature of which is not understood–although theories abound. The “ordinary”, baryonic star-stuff that composes our familiar world is only a comparatively tiny fraction of the mass-energy of the Universe. The stars created the elements that make up our bodies deep within their secretive, hot nuclear-fusing hearts. The more massive stars haunting our Cosmos then blasted themselves to shreds when they had finally consumed their entire necessary supply of nuclear fuel–hurling the stuff of life–that they had cooked up in their cores, throughout the entire Universe in the fiery fury of supernovae conflagrations!

The enormous and sparkling star-fired galaxies, and even more gigantic galaxy clusters and superclusters, are all embedded in transparent halos of dark matter. The dark matter weaves itself into a bewitching and intricate web, spun of invisible filaments, throughout Space and Time. The sparkling, fiery galaxies are all strung out along this intricate, transparent structure, like glittering sequins on a black velvet gown, outlining for us that which we cannot see.

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