Out of This World Computing

If you enjoy roaming around open world video games, take a moment to consider a virtual environment comprising the entire universe — and no, we're not talking about No Man's Sky.

In June, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich used a supercomputer to create a simulation containing 2 trillion digital particles shaped into roughly 25 billion virtual galaxies. At the time, it was the world's largest virtual universe, but now, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing say they've beaten the Swiss team's work, according to an announcement published on Wednesday by Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of the science ministry.

The Chinese team used the world's most powerful supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight based in Wuxi, to create their virtual universe. The team's simulation was limited to an hour as another group had booked time on the supercomputer, but over the course of those 60 minutes, they were able to simulate the creation of the universe from the Big Bang up to early expansions — a feat that required 10 trillion digital particles.

“We just got to the point of tens of millions years after the Big Bang. It was still a very young stage for the universe. Most galaxies were not even born,” Gao Liang, the computational cosmology group chair of the academy's National Astronomical Observatories, told the South China Morning Post.

Modeling to Understand

Scientists have been trying to create simulations that model the universe for decades now, but simulating every known object in the universe requires a very sophisticated machine. Back in the 1970s, the available computing power could only process up to a thousand particles. Thanks to ever-more-powerful computers, that number has grown into the trillions in recent years.

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Developing a virtual universe isn't just for fun. Astronomers use such models to better study and understand the universe and the cosmic bodies in it. Simulations break down the universe's mass into particles that interact with one another through physical forces like gravity. The more particles there are in a simulation, the better its chances of replaying and forecasting the evolution of the universe.

Until we develop and perfect universal quantum computers, supercomputers are our best tool for such computations. For Gao, his team's work is just the beginning. “This is just a warm-up exercise. We still have a long way ahead to get what we want,” he said. To fully simulate the universe at its current age of 1.3 billion years, the team will need more than an hour on the Sunway TaihuLight. "Or its successor, which is better,” Gao added.

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