Is there someone in there…

The other day I came across this article.

It talks about how scientist have created the greatest and most accurately detailed computer simulation of our universe. First of all that is totally awesome, not only on the surface but it is cool for so many other reasons. The article states that the simulation mimics our universe almost perfectly. It has spiral galaxies, like our Milky Way, even has the same chemical makeup of our very own universe. So me and my inquisitive nature began to think, yeah watch out! I thought that if this simulated universe mimics our own so closely, even chemically, then would it be possible to have created life in this simulated universe? I emailed Christine Pullam and Shy Genel who are the Public Affairs Specialist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who released the article. Below is the email I sent along with her response.

I sent:

I was wondering if you could answer a quick question I had about the above article?

The article states that not only are galaxies similar to our own in the simulation but it also states that even the chemical make up of the galaxies mimicked our own universe. I may be interpreting this wrong but if that is the case and the chemical components are there and reacting as they would in the real world could there be some sort of basic life form alive in the simulated universe even though it is a simulation?

I am 100% sure I am missing something but I would think that if this complex system has all the ingredients then could it not be possible that something could evolve in the simulation that could be understood as “alive,” even if it is primitive at best. Perhaps even a bacteria or single celled organism?

Thank you for your time,

Their responses:

Hello Spalding,

That’s a great question! I like your way of thinking.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your view), the simulation is not that detailed. It’s designed to simulate effects on the scale of galaxies and galaxy clusters. The smallest pixels, or “resolution elements,” are the size of 100,000 Suns. So although it’s very detailed as far as cosmic simulations go, it doesn’t reach a small enough scale to simulate a living organism.

We do have researchers looking into the question of life as part of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. You might find some interesting reading on their website:

Thanks for your interest,

Christine Pulliam

CfA Public Affairs Office


thank you for your interest in our research!

Unfortunately, our modeling of chemistry doesn’t go as far as to be able to allow anything that resembles life to evolve, not even remotely… The “chemistry” that is referred to in the article is in fact the jargon used by astronomers to refer to the elemental composition of mass. That is, our simulation follows the fraction of the mass that is in the form of Hydrogen, Helium, Carbon, Oxygen, etc, but does not follow chemical reactions between the elements. Furthermore, since we simulate a large cosmic volume, the mass resolution of our simulation is about a million solar masses. That is, even if we did follow chemical reactions, those would occur on scales much larger than single molecules, cells, or even planets. Future technological advances will hopefully allow us one day to get down to those scales.

Regards on behalf of the Illustris collaboration,

Shy Genel

First of all I was super excited to get a response, as most times I email academic professionals I never get a response to my questions. Looking at you Brian Greene! Their responses were things I did not even think about. The simulation is not detailed enough to see signs of life. I think this whole idea is cool and I still have a ton of questions for them. This is really intriguing but at the same time it really shows how far our technology still has to go. Based on what they both said, I assume we do not have the computer power to create a simulation that could get to a level that would allow life to evolve. Which maybe that is a good thing at this point in time.

Let your mind wonder…


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