SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
Champaign, IL — An upcoming episode of the PBS TV series “Nova” will show how artistic talent, cutting-edge visualization techniques, and solid scientific research can combine to help create a documentary that is both informative and entertaining.
The “Nova” episode, called “Runaway Universe,” will feature research data from members of the National Computational Science Alliance (Alliance) Cosmology team. The scientific data was integrated into the TV show as animated segments using the National Center for Supercomputing Application’s (NCSA) Virtual Director software. “Runaway Universe” was created in High Definition TV format (HDTV) and will air Nov. 21 at 9 p.m. EST (8 p.m. CST) on PBS stations across the country. Funding for the show was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Informal Science Education to Brent Tully, a University of Hawaii researcher who collaborates with the Alliance Cosmology team, and by Nova.
“For me personally, the purpose of the grant and the show is to be able to bring to the public a dramatic display of the filamentary structure of the universe,” said Tully. “It is a great way to share with the public some very dramatic discoveries about the nature of the universe.”
Tully’s database of 35,000 observed galaxies was used to compose one animated sequence in the show. That sequence takes the viewer from the Earth, through the Milky Way, out to the Virgo Cluster and past nearby galaxies. The data then transitions into an animated voyage through large-scale cosmic structures drawn from simulations done by Alliance Cosmology team members Jeremiah Ostriker and Paul Bode of Princeton University. NCSA’s Virtual Director team transformed the data from Tully and the cosmology simulations from Ostriker and Bode into animated HDTV footage that captures the beauty and the mystery of a voyage through the cosmos.
Virtual Director is a software program created by Donna Cox, an NCSA researcher and professor in the University of Illinois School of Art and Design, Robert Patterson of NCSA, and Marcus Thiebaux of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. NCSA’s Stuart Levy maintains the software and extends its capabilities. Virtual Director allows researchers to navigate through complex scientific visualizations and record and edit their movements through the data with a virtual camera. In essence, the software allows the user to direct the simulation and create a movie.
Thomas Lucas, director and producer of “Runaway Universe,” said he and Tully had the idea of including a flight around the galaxies in the documentary, but it took the Virtual Director team to make the idea a reality.
“We had an idea, but the execution of that idea was through Bob, Donna, and Stuart,” said Lucas. “They put an enormous amount of time and effort into developing the techniques for doing these sequences. It was really a labor of love.”
Part of that effort involved remote collaboration between Patterson and Tully. Patterson worked from the Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE) at NCSA and Tully from his desktop computer in Hawaii to track camera movements through his dataset and create animations in real-time. The process was a first for Tully, who said the use of VR and the Virtual Director software enhanced his ability to understand his data.
“That is the role of Virtual Director,” said Cox. “We help people present their data as animations that tell a story. It gives them a whole new way of looking at their data, and it makes that data accessible to many more people–in this case all the people who watch Nova.”
Another animated segment in “Runaway Universe” features data computed and simulated by Michael Norman, a member of the Alliance Cosmology team at the University of California, San Diego, using adaptive mesh refinement (AMR) techniques. Norman’s computer runs were massive, using 100,000 CPU hours on a 128-processor array of NCSA’s SGI Origin2000 supercomputer. The resulting one minute animation depicts the history of the universe from the big bang through star formation to the formation of a galaxy group, and ends with a “dive” into a galaxy. Levy worked with Norman to develop new techniques for rendering AMR data as animations. After completing a first run on the Origin and producing about 500 gigabytes of data, a second computer run was done. That run used AMR to take “snap shots” of the data at different points in time over the simulated history of the universe.
“We looked at some of the interesting details from the first run on the Origin2000 and then focused on some of those details for the second run,” explained Levy. “It is data from that second run that was used to create the animated sequence for Nova. ”
The Virtual Director team’s animated sequences were more challenging than most partly because astronomical phenomena – which involve gaseous materials that light can penetrate – are some of the most challenging scientific events to animate. In addition, the HDTV format requires much higher resolution than traditional television and therefore more data and rendering time.
“No commercial establishment would have taken on a project like this. They wouldn’t have the resources or the patience,” said Lucas.
The National Center for Supercomputing Applications is the leading-edge site for the National Computational Science Alliance. NCSA is a leader in the development and deployment of cutting-edge high-performance computing, networking, and information technologies. The National Science Foundation, the state of Illinois, the University of Illinois, industrial partners, and other federal agencies fund NCSA.
The National Computational Science Alliance is a partnership to prototype an advanced computational infrastructure for the 21st century and includes more than 50 academic, government and industry research partners from across the United States. The Alliance is one of two partnerships funded by the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (PACI) program, and receives cost sharing at partner institutions. NSF also supports the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI), led by the San Diego Supercomputer Center.