Watch Galaxies Evolve Over 9 Billion Years—in Just One Minute

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 23 2012 3:30 PM

Watch Galaxies Evolve Over 9 Billion Years—in Just One Minute

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In heavenly fields like astrophysics and cosmology, scientists here on the ground necessarily have a limited set of tools at their disposal. Various kinds of telescopes allow for the study of objects in space as well as for the general mapping of the observable universe, while particle accelerators here on Earth help clarify how the cosmos are constructed on a fundamental level. But when researchers want to examine the big picture of the universe—especially in terms of how the whole thing evolved over time—computer simulations are the best in a small set of options. These models start with our mathematical understanding of cosmic evolution, add real-world observations like the afterglow of the Big Bang, and then extrapolate the development of galaxies and stars from those initial conditions. The closer the model comes to matching reality, the more confident we can be in our understanding of physics.

The biggest obstacles to accurate modeling are computing power and analytical finesse. However, as Andrew Purcell reported over at International Science Grid This Week, a new programming advance has brought us one step closer to imitating nature. Using Odyssey, a high-performance supercomputer at Harvard, and a new software system called Arepo, researchers have created “the most realistic simulation of cosmic evolution to date.” Their model begins 4 billion years after the Big Bang and details the evolution of galactic structure in our local region of space up to the present day. While the YouTube video below looks elegantly simple with its 9-billion-year dance of gradually condensing and swirling galaxies, don’t be fooled: The supercomputer’s 1024 processor cores took months to process all the complex equations and data necessary to produce it.

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For more information on both the model and the breakthrough in simulation technology that allowed it, check out the original article on ISGTW

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J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.