The universe in a box

The problem with cosmology as a science is that cosmologists have only one universe to observe. Science works best when it can make comparisons, do experiments, twiddle the variables and see what happens. Cosmologists can observe the universe and try to explain it, but as for a controlled experiment — well, forget it.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a way to go back to the beginning — to those first few trillion trillion trillionths of a second of the big bang — and change, say, the ratio of the strength of the gravitational force to the strength of the electrical force. Or the ratio of the mass of the proton to the mass of the electron. And see what happens. See if we still get a universe where stars live long enough for life to evolve. Or a universe where stars make enough heavy elements — carbon and oxygen, for example — to make life possible. See just how special a universe has to be for conscious creatures to appear who look into the depths of space and wonder what it all means.
Well, maybe something like this is possible. Last year a paper appeared in the journal Nature, titled “Simulations of the Formation, Evolution and Clustering of Galaxies and Quasars,” that did not get nearly the attention it deserved in the popular press. A consortium of European cosmologists ran the most detailed computer simulation yet of the evolution of the universe, from the big bang to the present
Science Musings by Chet Raymo