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There’s a digital version of the actual universe you can explore – no, it’s not a video game

There’s a digital version of the actual universe you can explore – no, it’s not a video game

If you own a PC equipped with vast amounts of storage, it’s yours for the low, low price of free
“You too can play with a digital simulation of the Universe stored in your PC” is not a caption that yours truly expected to write in 2021, yet here we are. (Image: Tomoaki Ishiyama, Hirotaka Nakayama, 4D2U Project, NAOJ)

It’s easy to forget, in this day and age of mainstream cross-media digital entertainment, that when we’re talking about “Marvel Cinematic Universe” this or “Metaverse” that, we are making references that are pitifully figurative. All it takes to realize that is the result of a scientific project offering nothing less than a virtual representation of the actual Universe — like the one an international team of researchers announced recently. Its name is Uchuu (the Japanese term for “outer space”) and it is the largest, most realistic virtual universe created to date. Furthermore, if you know what you’re doing and have tons of storage on your personal computer, you can play with it — talking figuratively again, see? — in the comfort of your own home.

Uchuu is, in essence, a computational cube that’s an inconceivable 9.63 billion light-years wide on each side. Let that sink in for a bit. Billion light-years. What happens within this cube is the simulation of the existence and interaction of no less than 2.1 trillion particles that synthesize galaxies or clusters of galaxies, giving scientists the opportunity to study the structure of the Universe on a scale that was simply unimaginable before.

These may not be as pretty as screenshots from space opera video games, but they are visualization images generated from the closest digital representation we have of the actual Universe, so… yeah. (Images: Tomoaki Ishiyama, Hirotaka Nakayama, 4D2U Project, NAOJ)

What’s more, Uchuu simulates the evolution of matter over almost the entire 13.8 billion year history of the Universe, from the Big Bang to the present. “Uchuu is like a time machine”, notes Julia F. Ereza, a Ph.D. student at Spain’s Instituto Astrofísica Andalucía who uses it. “We can go forward, backward and stop in time, we can ‘zoom in’ on a single galaxy or ‘zoom out’ to visualize a whole cluster, we can see what is really happening at every instant and in every place of the Universe from its earliest days to the present, being an essential tool to study the Cosmos”.

The simulation was created using ATERUI II, a supercomputer dedicated to astronomy projects located in Iwate, Japan. ATERU II is extremely powerful but, even so, it took a while to calculate the data necessary for the creation of Uchuu. “We used all 40.200 CPU cores available to ATERU II exclusively for 48 hours each month”, Tomoaki Ishiyama, the associate professor at Chiba University who developed the code used to generate Uchuu, explained. “Twenty million supercomputer hours were consumed and 3 Petabytes of data generated, the equivalent of 894.784.853 pictures from a 12-megapixel smartphone camera”.

Seeing these images of galaxies moving is as mesmerizing and spectacular as one could hope for — also, so strange that they also look like neurons, no? (Image: Tomoaki Ishiyama, Hirotaka Nakayama, 4D2U Project, NAOJ)

This being 2021, everyone can download the core simulation files of Uchuu and run the very same virtual version of the Universe on his/her PC — the only special requirement being, well, lots and lots of storage space: a bit more than 100 TB, in fact (of compressed data nonetheless!), or eight of the largest hard drives available on the market right now. The good news is that — since ATERU II already did most of the calculations — interested users can run the simulation with different scripts and data sets just for the fun of it, which is as cool as it is mindboggling. Scientists will use Uchuu in order to understand how to better interpret Big Data coming from the Universe itself, of course, but hey. Take a look at this video and then try not to marvel at what’s available to mere mortals these days!

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