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Scientists Model the Big Bang

September 18th 2012

First stars form after Big Bang
Artist's conception: First stars forming after Big Bang (credit: NASA)

Since they can’t turn back time to witness the creation of the universe almost 14 billion years ago, scientists are working on the next best thing: creating a virtual universe, starting at the beginning with the Big Bang.

With the help of the world’s third-fastest computer, physicists from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are developing simulations that will take them on a trip from the origins of the universe until today.

Over the years, scientists have scanned the night skies with telescopes which produced maps of the universe. With the advances in astronomical technology, more details about the cosmos have emerged from these surveys. Taking data from the best sky surveys and running it through Argonne’s Mira Supercomputer, the team plans to produce some of the largest high-resolution simulations of the distribution of matter in the universe. Given the improvements in technology, Salman Habib, one of the project leaders, says it makes sense to try to understand the universe on the biggest possible scale.

“In effect, all of science, as you know it, can be studied by looking at the evolution of the universe,” says Habib.

The planned simulation, according to Katrin Heitmann, a co-leader on the project, will include images and movies of the universe at different times. Scientists who use the team’s recreation of the universe for their own cosmological research will be able to gather information taken and measured from the statistics produced by the simulation.

Scientists hope the project will help shed greater light on Dark Matter, a theoretical—as yet unobserved—form of matter scientists believe accounts for much of the total mass in the universe. The team also hopes to learn more about Dark Energy, the hypothetical form of energy thought to compose about 70 percent of the universe.

Habib points out that we’re used to thinking of space as something static or fixed, but as time progresses new space continues to be created. The expansion of the universe is predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but that same theory, according to Habib, also states that that expansion should slow down with time.

However, observations made over recent years, including work by winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011, show the opposite is true, that in fact, the universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. The cause of this expansion remains a mystery, according to Habib, but a number of scientists think Dark Energy is the force behind the universe’s rapid growth.

According to Habib, scientists are unsure exactly what Dark Energy is. To help solve this mystery, different models of what Dark Energy could be will be put through the simulation to allow scientists to compare the observational results of each model. Habib and his colleagues hope their simulations will not only help scientists check various models of Dark Energy, and the properties of Dark Matter, but will also provide a kind of grand picture of the evolution of the universe.

Rick Pantaleo hosts VOA News’s “Science World,” from which this article is adapted.

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