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A supercomputer simulation of the Universe showing the cosmic web structure in yellow against a blue background

We’re part of an international team of astronomers who have carried out the biggest ever computer simulations from the Big Bang to the present day to investigate how the Universe evolved.

The FLAMINGO simulations calculate the evolution of all the components of the Universe – ordinary matter, like stars and planets, dark matter and dark energy – based on the laws of physics.

Precise detail

As the simulations progress, virtual galaxies and galaxy clusters emerge in precise detail.

It’s hope hoped the simulations will allow researchers to compare the virtual Universe with observations of the real thing being captured by new high-powered telescopes, like the James Webb Space telescope.

This could help scientists understand if the standard model of cosmology – used to explain the evolution of the Universe – provides an accurate description of reality.

Ordinary matter

Previous simulations, which have been compared to observations of the Universe, have focused on cold dark matter - believed to be a key component of the structure of the cosmos.

However, astronomers now say that the effects of ordinary matter, which makes up only sixteen per cent of all matter in the Universe, and neutrinos, tiny particles that rarely interact with normal matter, also need to be taken into account when trying to understand the Universe’s evolution.

The FLAMINGO simulations, carried out on the Cosmology Machine supercomputer at Durham over the past two years, tracked the formation of the Universe’s structure in dark matter, ordinary matter and neutrinos, following the standard model of physics.

The team ran the simulations using different resolutions and also altered other factors such as the strength of galactic winds and the mass of the neutrinos.

The first results showed that the inclusion of ordinary matter and neutrinos in the simulations was essential for making accurate predictions.

Interpreting new data

New telescopes, such as the international “Dark Energy Survey Instrument” (in which Durham is a partner) and the European Space Agency’s Euclid space telescope, are collecting huge amounts of data about galaxies, quasars and stars, and these observations are posing questions about the theories behind the current understanding of the evolution of the Universe.

Simulations like FLAMINGO will play a key role in interpreting these data by comparing theoretical predictions with observational data.

Find out more

  • Read more about FLAMINGO’s research in these three papers, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical society – paper one, paper two, paper three.

  • Durham University is a collaborator on FLAMINGO which also involves the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, and Liverpool John Moores University. The FLAMINGO simulations were run on the Cosmology Machine (COSMA 8) supercomputer, hosted by the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University on behalf of the UK’s DiRAC High-Performance Computing facility.

  • The simulations took more than 50 million processor hours on COSMA 8 over the past two years. To make the FLAMINGO simulations possible, the researchers developed a new code, called SWIFT, which efficiently distributes the computational work over thousands of Central Processing Units (CPUs, sometimes as many as 65,000).

  • Funding for FLAMINGO came from the European Research Council, the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

  • Our Department of Physics is a thriving centre for research and education. Ranked 2nd in the UK in The Guardian University Guide 2024 and in the World Top 100 in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2023. We are proud to deliver a teaching and learning experience for students which closely aligns with the research-intensive values and practices of the University.  Feeling inspired? Visit our Physics webpages to learn more about our postgraduate and undergraduate programmes.  Durham University is a top 100 world university. In the QS World University Rankings 2024, we were ranked 78th globally.  

Banner image: A projection of the Universe through a 130 million light years thick slice through a simulation of a cubic volume of 9,132 million light years. Credit: Josh Borrow, the FLAMINGO team and the Virgo Consortium.