July 28, 2023

Andrew Pontzen

Harvard Book Store, the Harvard University Division of Science, and the Harvard Library welcome ANDREW PONTZEN—professor of cosmology at University College London—for a discussion of his new book The Universe in a Box: Simulations and the Quest to Code the Cosmos. He was joined in conversation by prospective Samuel P. Langley Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, ATINÇ ÇAĞAN ŞENGÜL.


Cosmology is a tricky science—no one can make their own stars, planets, or galaxies to test its theories. But over the last few decades a new kind of physics has emerged to fill the gap between theory and experimentation. Harnessing the power of modern supercomputers, cosmologists have built simulations that offer profound insights into the deep history of our universe, allowing centuries-old ideas to be tested for the first time. Today, physicists are translating their ideas and equations into code, finding that there is just as much to be learned from computers as experiments in laboratories.

In The Universe in a Box, cosmologist Andrew Pontzen explains how physicists model the universe’s most exotic phenomena, from black holes and colliding galaxies to dark matter and quantum entanglement, enabling them to study the evolution of virtual worlds and to shed new light on our reality.

But simulations don’t just allow experimentation with the cosmos; they are also essential to myriad disciplines like weather forecasting, epidemiology, neuroscience, financial planning, airplane design, and special effects for summer blockbusters. Crafting these simulations involves tough compromises and expert knowledge. Simulation is itself a whole new branch of science, one that we are only just beginning to appreciate and understand. The story of simulations is the thrilling history of how we arrived at our current knowledge of the world around us, and it provides a sneak peek at what we may discover next.

About Author(s)

Andrew Pontzen is a professor of cosmology at University College London. He has written for New Scientist, BBC Sky at Night, and BBC Focus; lectured at the Royal Institution; and been featured as an expert on PBS’s NOVA, the Discovery Channel’s How the Universe Works, and other shows. Simulations are a major part of his research which spans cosmology, physics and computation. He lives in London.
My name is Atınç Çağan Şengül, and I am currently a prospective Samuel P. Langley Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. My research primarily focuses on studying the properties and dynamics of dark matter. I am particularly interested in investigating cosmological and astrophysical observations to uncover potential evidence for physics beyond the standard model. In 2018, I completed my BA in Physics at the University of Chicago, and I recently obtained my PhD in physics from Harvard University, where I worked on strong gravitational lensing under the supervision of Cora Dvorkin.