Illustris, Cosmology, and Simulation…
There’s been quite a lot of news coverage over the last day or two emanating from a paper just out in the journal Nature by Vogelsberger et al. which describes a set of cosmological simulations called Illustris; see for example here and here.
The excitement revolves around the fact that Illustris represents a bit of a landmark, in that it’s the first hydrodynamical simulation with sufficient dynamical range that it is able to fully resolve the formation and evolution of individual galaxies within the cosmic web of large-scale structure.
The simulations obviously represent a tremendous piece or work; they were run on supercomputers in France, Germany, and the USA; the largest of them was run on no less than 8,192 computer cores and took 19 million CPU hours. A single state-of-the-art desktop computer would require more than 2000 years to perform this calculation!
There’s even a video to accompany it (shame about the music):
The use of the word “simulation” always makes me smile. Being a crossword nut I spend far too much time looking in dictionaries but one often finds quite amusing things there. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines SIMULATION:
a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.
b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.
2. A false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.
3. The technique of imitating the behaviour of some situation or process (whether economic, military, mechanical, etc.) by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus, esp. for the purpose of study or personnel training.
So it’s only the third entry that gives the meaning intended to be conveyed by the usage in the context of cosmological simulations. This is worth bearing in mind if you prefer old-fashioned analytical theory and want to wind up a simulationist! In football, of course, you can even get sent off for simulation…
Reproducing a reasonable likeness of something in a computer is not the same as understanding it, but that is not to say that these simulations aren’t incredibly useful and powerful, not just for making lovely pictures and videos but for helping to plan large scale survey programmes that can go and map cosmological structures on the same scale. Simulations of this scale are needed to help design observational and data analysis strategies for, e.g., the forthcoming Euclid mission.Follow @telescoper