April 26, 2011

Tech Convergence Brings Science to Life

Nicole Hemsoth

Over the last few years a number of technologies have been converging, moving beyond their original, isolated purposes to become components of larger systems. There are many examples of such tech-meshing, especially in this era of ubiquitous connectivity.

Plainly put, scientific instruments are no longer relegated to mere data collection duty. They can send, receive and interpret data all from one location, handling tasks as a whole versus across distributed processes.

One case of tech-mesh caught the attention of New York Times author John Markoff this week. He described an upcoming exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences’ Morrison Planetarium called “Life: A Cosmic Journey” noting the seamless interlinking of vast wells of scientific data, visualization tools, and high-performance computing. This merger of technologies provides visual explanation of complex phenomena — not to mention some incredible eye candy.

The exhibit harnesses supercomputers and visualization to lend rare glimpses into the macroscopic elements of earth’s beginnings. The journey begins at the galactic level and quickly zooms in to reveal the minute details of cellular structure.

Viewers can witness something that goes far beyond a projection on a screen—they can see the work of microscopes, telescopes, vast computation and visualization—all working as a unified whole.

Markoff also points to the “Fragile Planet” exhibit that came before “Cosmic Journey”. He notes that in this display, the images were projected overhead to create the effect of looking up at the night sky. Now, however, three parallel computing systems store telescope and microscope data to display data from the subatomic level to the vast structure of the universe. The planetarium now “moves seamlessly over 12 orders of magnitude on the objects it presents.”

Markoff explains that “The physical technology of scientific research is still here — the new electron microscopes, the telescopes, the particle colliders — but they are now inseparable from computing power, and it’s the computers that let scientists find order and patterns in the raw information that the physical tools gather.”

Leaving the awe-factor of the images aside, this is symbolic of the integration of data sources with the compute and visualization power that gives the collected information meaning. As more devices are connected in more complex ways, this new era of convergence could yield some stunning discoveries — not to mention some sound excuses for a night out.

Full story at New York Times (Subscription Req'd)