Are we living in a simulation? Is our whole universe just a computer program running on a computer somewhere in “real” physical reality?
That’s a question philosophers like Nick Bostrom have asked. One big bulwark against it was an assumption that either humanity will never evolve enough to make such a sophisticated simulation, or that it’s physically impossible. The Illustris project from MIT is starting to make me doubt that limitation.
The Illustris project harnesses the latest advancements in computing power to create an amazingly accurate mode of our universe, down to a degree that wasn’t possible before.
According to findings recently published in the journal Nature, the Illustris team simulated a 330-million-light-year chunk of the universe with enough detail to include individual galaxies and black holes, then ran it through a simulation starting at 12 million years after the big bang though the 13 billion years until today.
Most previous simulations were much simpler, focusing only on the large scale dark matter and dark energy that make up most of the universe. Illustris attempts to simulate those, normal matter, and physics including gravity, hydrodynamics, and other processes. Though the simulation is not perfect, it produces a universe a lot like our own.
In the simulation you can see the process of the formation of the universe as scientists understand it. It shows dark matter coalesce into an enormous cosmic web, ordinary matter attracted to concentrated dark matter and clumping to form galaxies, supermassive black holes, and supernovas fusing hydrogen into helium and eventually the heavier elements that will make up planets and us.
All of this takes a lot of computer power. The Illustris simulations were run on supercomputers in France, Germany, and the U.S. The largest simulation was so complex it would take a desktop computer 2,000 years to render it.
So, okay, maybe in some unknowable “real” space a kid at his computer pushed a button and simulated everything I’ll ever know. I’m fine with that. But how about a couple of cheat codes, kid? I could use that infinite money cheat. At least give me infinite rocket launcher.
Read more about Illustris here.