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Can we put the Universe in a box?

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Can we put the Universe in a box?

“Our origins are written in the stars. And we’re just learning to read.” She said it Andrew Pontzan internationally renowned cosmologist who spends much of his time at simulate black holes, stars and galaxies on the computer.

Pontzen recounted his studies – and those of fundamental importance of the scientists who preceded him – in a fascinating book that explains how human progress in space exploration, computational calculations and the development of artificial intelligence have contributed to an acceleration in studies that use simulations to address the complexity of the Universe.

Pontzen’s book, which teaches cosmology to University College Londonis called “The Universe in a Box – A New History of the Cosmos” and was recently published in Italy by Adelphi.

One of the problems of the Universe, for those who study it, it is its immensity.

To understand, for example, how new galaxies, stars and planets develop – and how these celestial bodies interact with each other – scientists must necessarily use simulations. In this way, explains Pontzen, they can be obtained “miniature universes contained in computers” through which to understand the way things – from subatomic particles to collective clouds – they behave collectively.

“Cosmologists face a double question: first, how did the Universe take on this structure?” Pontzen said in one of the interviews that accompanied the launch of his book in the United States. “And how – did added the cosmologist – is it connected to the history of our own solar system, of the Sun and the Earth? Well, computer simulations prove to be an excellent tool for dealing with these types of questions.”

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“Simulations – states Pontzen in his book – allow a new type of knowledge that It leaves the tedious calculations to computers and frees up humans to focus on the bonds and relationships that emerge”.

A bit like generative AI, the most famous example of which is ChatGptpromises to take care of basic and repetitive jobs and to leave human beings more time to carry out tasks that involve a good deal of reasoning and creativity.

But to understand the behavior of the cosmos – a succession of linked events that has lasted for 13.8 billion years – the calculations of increasingly powerful computers are not enough. Nor the extraordinary capabilities of modern artificial intelligence.

Putting the Universe really in a box, in short, it’s practically impossible. Even in an exciting historical period like the one we are experiencing, characterized by big data that allow you to create “digital twin” of the Earthfor example, and from artificial intelligence models – like Sora from OpenAI – which generate videos in which the real world – and the laws of physics that characterize it – come simulated by powerful algorithms.

“To build and interpret simulations we must have a meticulous knowledge of physics” says Pontzen, not surprisingly. But the cosmologist is not referring to the laws and rules that are learned in school, which if applied allow us to solve certain problems. “No one is in fact able to simulate every single atomic particle and its effects on all the others”.

“The simulations allow us to observe only the tip of the iceberg” says Pontzen.

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In his book the cosmologist tells – convincingly – the work and intuitions of scientists who have contributed to creating increasingly effective simulations. From those that assist meteorologists in their weather forecasts, to those that have had a central role – since the 1980s and 1990s – in the research they accumulate evidence of dark matter and energy in the cosmoswhose existence as we know is based exclusively on scientific hypotheses.

What makes Pontzen’s volume extremely interesting, paradoxically, is the “human” component which served – and still serves – to arrive at “superhuman” reconstructions in terms of calculations and complexity. The efforts and intuitions, for example, of the pioneers of information technology Charles Babbage e Ada Lovelace. Or the job of a meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardsonwho made the first important weather forecast calculations while fighting on the front in France during the First World War.

Own There’s Lovelacewhich can be considered the first programmer in historygave a brilliant definition of what a simulation is: “Those who see mathematical science not simply as a vast body of abstract and immutable truths, will regard with particular interest anything which may tend to facilitate the translation of its principles into practical forms explicit.”

Yet also the most perfect and advanced of simulations “it will never translate into a literal digital replica of the universe we inhabit – explained Pontzen some time ago in an article written for the Guardian -. Such a reconstruction is as impossible as an accurate prediction of the future of the solar system. However, simulations based on even vague descriptions can act as a guide, suggesting how galaxies may have evolved over time, allowing the results of increasingly sophisticated telescopes to be interpreted and indicating how to gain further knowledge.”

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