May 21, 2014By Lance Baily

Simulating the Universe

simulation of the universe

From time to time HealthySim likes to cover how the use of simulation is continuing to expand into different verticals beyond healthcare. Today, we are sharing how the team from the Illustris Project is using advanced computer modeling to simulate the formation of the Universe! If you have been watching Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos lately, you will surely enjoy these visualizations – some of which attempt to recreate 13.8 billion years of expansion since the Big Bang. The team that put this simulation together comes from MIT, HITS, Cambridge, STSCI, Harvard, Princeton and others.

The Illustris Motivation:


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“The standard model of cosmology posits that the mass-energy density of the Universe is dominated by unknown forms of dark matter and dark energy. Testing this extraordinary scenario requires precise predictions for the formation of structure in the visible matter, which is directly observable as stars, diffuse gas, and accreting black holes. These components of the visible matter are organized in a ‘Cosmic Web’ of sheets, filaments, and voids, inside which the basic units of cosmic structure – galaxies – are embedded. To test our current ideas on the formation and evolution of galaxies, we strive to create simulated galaxies as detailed and realistic as possible, and compare them to galaxies observed in the real universe. By probing our successes and failures, we can further enhance our understanding of the galaxy formation process, and thereby perhaps realize something fundamental about the world in which we live.

The Illustris project is a set of large-scale cosmological simulations, including the most ambitious simulation of galaxy formation yet performed. The calculation tracks the expansion of the universe, the gravitational pull of matter onto itself, the motion or “hydrodynamics” of cosmic gas, as well as the formation of stars and black holes. These physical components and processes are all modeled starting from initial conditions resembling the very young universe 300,000 years after the Big Bang and until the present day, spanning over 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution. The simulated volume contains tens of thousands of galaxies captured in high-detail, covering a wide range of masses, rates of star formation, shapes, sizes, and with properties that agree well with the galaxy population observed in the real universe. We are currently working to make detailed comparisons of our simulation box to these observed galaxy populations, and some exciting promising results have already been published.”

universe simulator

The Successes of the Project Include the Ability to:


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  • Reproduce a wide range of observable properties of galaxies and the relationships between these properties.
  • Precisely measure the gas content of the universe, and where it resides.
  • Investigate the number of “satellite” galaxies, their properties, and their connection to cosmology.
  • Study changes in internal structure as galaxy populations evolve in time.
  • Mesure the impact of gas on the structure of dark matter.
  • Produce “mock” observations.

The Illustris website allows users to view many more pictures, videos, create their own simulations as well as learn more about this fascinating project! Clearly the methodology of technology-driven simulation has implications far and wide!


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