The digital universe that lives inside a supercomputer

When you're trying to model the evolution of the universe over billions of years there's only so much you can do with brainpower and a pencil.

Luckily the researchers at the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University in the UK have a 25 TeraFlops supercomputer at hand.

Professor Carlos Frenk, director of the institute for computational cosmology at the University of Durham, said: "For the first time in the history of humanity we have the ability to build virtual universes in a computer."

To build a virtual universe the institute programs the computer with the fundamental laws of physics, feeds it data representing the matter and energy that made up the early universe and examines the digital galaxies the supercomputer spits out.

The evolution of the universe is simulated from 300,000 years after the Big Bang - when the universe was practically a newborn in cosmological terms - through to today.

The models help the institute learn about the processes that shape galaxies, such as the influence of heating and cooling and how supernova explosions influence star formation. They also simulate the influence of dark matter, matter that is invisible save for its pull on visible matter around it.

This is one of the institute's models of the swathe of stars, tens of thousands of light years across, enveloping a Milky Way-like galaxy.

Photo: A.P. Cooper and J. Helly / Virgo Consortium

By Nick Heath

Nick Heath is a computer science student and was formerly a journalist at TechRepublic and ZDNet.