Screenshot of the Illustris Simulation that shows what the universe looks like 12.2 billion years after the Big Bang. Image: MIT
Screenshot of the Illustris Simulation that shows what the universe looks like 12.2 billion years after the Big Bang. Image: MIT

The Earth is on a collision course with another galaxy. But you don’t have to hurry to fasten your seat belt: our Milky Way is not expected to run into the Andromeda Galaxy for another 4 billion years.

“Our solar system might be thrown from its path around the Milky Way…before being absorbed into the larger merged galaxy,” says science writer Dennis Overbye ’66 in a video posted in May on the New York Times—the first in a monthly science series called “Out There.”

The second episode, released last week, depicts how dark matter may have shaped the formation of the universe, all the way back to the Big Bang. When we look to the sky, says Overbye, we see “only the visible fringe of a much vaster and darker universe.” That we can now look to the computer to imagine such vastness is thanks to the Illustris project, whose striking visualizations are showcased in the episode.

Led by Mark Vogelsberger, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, Illustris is a multinational group that has created “the most detailed computer simulation of our universe…executed on the fastest supercomputers on the planet,” according to the group’s website.

“Cosmology and galaxy formation entered only recently their golden age with an enormous amount of observational data being available,” Vogelsberger observes on his MIT website.

Vogelsberger and the group used the data-crunching power of supercomputers to model a cube-shaped section of the universe 350 million light years long on each side and containing 41,416 galaxies. The highly detailed model allowed researchers to create pictures from the simulation and to compare them to images of the known universe.

The result? A way to test theories of the existence of dark matter and dark energy—and some breathtaking simulations that help us envision where the universe came from and where it’s headed, such as this video that zooms in from a large expanse of the universe to a single galaxy, or this video that shows the evolution of the Illustris cube over the course of 13 billion years.

Look for a new video and accompanying article from Overbye on the first Wednesday of each month on the New York Times “Out There” channel.


Previously on Continuum: We’re not Star Dust, We’re Star Dung

MIT News Office: The Universe in a Cube

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