Seeing the Un-Seeable

We’ve come a long way with computer graphics since Pong! And itisn’t all about games. In fact, one of the greatest tools technology has givenus is a suite of capabilities for creating photos, video, and renderings ofthings beyond the scope of our all-too-human eyes.

The broad category for this process of seeing the un-seeable iscalled science visualization. Over the past month several different notices inthe news have reminded me of just how darned cool it is.

From human cells gone mad to the force of water to the teensiestdenizens of our world, it takes the art and science of visualization to makethem appear in our line of sight. And the beauty can be breathtaking.

Over at Wired, you can check outthe Department of Energy’s 2009 10 top winners for Science Visualization videos, which are presented during the agency’s Scientific Discovery throughAdvanced Computing conference. These videos were produced by using computergraphics and modeling to represent a researchers numerical data.

But don’t yawn at the description – instead take a look (warning, youhave to get through the short ‘sponsor message’ first) at a simulation ofsomething called a type Ia supernovae exploding. Data tells us how this happens– that hot ash breaks through the surface of the star, flows, spreads, andmakes it all go boom. But the video created from the data shows this in a way thatwords can’t being to explain, with glowing gooey red material spreading andexpanding across the star.

Want a practical application? The Department of Defense – no doubtin a quest for higher performing vehicles – simulated waves breaking across aboat, which turns out to be one of the most complicated problems inhydrodynamics. The splish-splash we’ve all seen on the water seems so simple,but the data behind it is another story. The video visualization shows not onlythe data of flow, but also shows how dramatically science visualization haschanged over the course of the five-year project.

Or what about ‘the big one”, the earthquake that everyone inCalifornia fears? Scientists took 12 terabytes of earthquake simulation dataand generated an animation to show what would happen – follow the rupture andwave propagation of a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on the San Andreas fault inSouthern California. OK, so you don’t actually get to see Los Angeles fall intothe sea, but the visulatziaton shows the far-reaching impact of the quake in away that data alone never could.

The International Science and Visualization Challenge’s deadlineentry for 2009 just passed this week. But even though it's too late to enteryour work,  take a look at the bestwork from years past,where electron microscopes, hundreds of stacked CT slices, stereoscopes, andother means let us ‘see’ our the world through a whole other lens.

Last year’s first place winner, The Glass Forest, is stunninglybeautiful. It also documents the source of 40% of the world's oxygen – tinydiatoms.

Another winner will ensure you never look at a squid in the sameway again, once you see the 400-micrometer diameter suckers on these suckers.

The NSF began running the contests in 2003, explaining it thusly:

How many people would have heard of fractalgeometry or the double helix or solar flares if they had been described solelyin words? In a world where science literacy is dismayingly rare, illustrationsprovide the most immediate and influential connection between scientists andother citizens, and the best hope for nurturing popular interest. Indeed, theyare now a necessity for public understanding of research developments.

This month also saw the announcement of the winners of the 1stAnnual International Scientific Animation Awards and Forum in Guiyang,China.  National Geographic tooktop honors for its animation of the data behind global warming. HBO and Jannisproductions took home an honorable mention for its rendering of bioactivity inthe human brain at different stages of Alzheimer's.

And lastly, lets’s look to technology of the outer rather thaninner world. In early September, the latest images from the Hubble telescopewere released. These are the first publicly viewable images produced using theHubble’s just-upgraded technology.

Just in case the eye-popping pics from the last generation weren’tenough, you now get multi-wavelength images of far-flung galaxies, a denselypacked star cluster, a pillar of creation, a butterfly nebula...  The Hubble’s new spectrograph also doessomething I find just mind-bending - it slices across billions of light-yearsmapping the universe and tracing the distribution of the fundamental elementsof life.

But don’t just believe me – go download (your tax dollars at workmake this possible!) some of these … like  Omega Centauri photographed with a 2.7 hour exposure time, or Stephan's Quintet which is 290 million light-years away.

If seeing is believing,then science visualization is one of the ways to help us believe in science –and through that, in building a better understanding of the world, ofourselves, and of the farest-flung reaches of time and space. And if that allfeels too lofty, well it is perfectly OK to just browse photos and say “wow.”

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