The galaxy builders

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Science  01 Jun 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 954-957
DOI: 10.1126/science.360.6392.954

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Philip Hopkins, a theoretical astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, likes to prank his colleagues. An expert in simulating the formation of galaxies, Hopkins sometimes begins his talks by projecting images of his creations next to photos of real galaxies and defying his audience to tell them apart. "We can even trick astronomers," Hopkins says. For decades, scientists have tried to simulate how the trillions of galaxies in the observable universe arose from clouds of gas after the big bang. But only in the past few years have the simulations begun to reproduce both the details of individual galaxies and their distribution of masses and shapes. As the fake universes improve, their role is also changing. Previously, information flowed one way: from the astronomers studying real galaxies to the modelers trying to simulate them. Now, insight is flowing the other way, too, with the models helping guide astronomers and astrophysicists. The models suggest that the earliest galaxies were oddly pickle-shaped, that wafer-thin spiral galaxies are surprisingly rugged in the face of collisions, and, perhaps most important, that galaxies must form stars far more slowly than astrophysicists expected. Progress is coming so fast, says Tiziana Di Matteo, a numerical cosmologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that "the whole thing has reached this little golden age."