Visualizing Science

By Mark Trodden | August 25, 2009 8:03 pm

Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on a new project with an undergraduate student and a postdoc. I’m not really ready to talk about the details yet, but one thing that became clear during our work was that we would understand the results of our numerical solutions much better if we had a movie of them. This is pretty standard these days and (particularly when you have a smart, motivated and fast student) one can obtain quite sophisticated animated solutions that allow one to develop a feeling for rather unintuitive results.

Having said this, I must confess that my own research isn’t one of the areas of science that typically lends itself to spectacular and artistic visualization. And I’m always therefore a little jealous of those people whose results allow dramatic representations.

A number of these are being featured in Wired’s Best Science Visualization Videos of 2009. These are drawn from across all of science and what they all have in common, aside from their usefulness in their respective fields, is their great beauty.

The closest one of these to my own area is the quite stunning movie of the simulation of a type Ia supernova explosion, credited to Brad Gallagher, George Jordan, Dean Townsley, Robert Fisher, Nathan Hearn, Jim Truan and Don Lamb.

A good theoretical description of these objects is certainly fascinating astrophysics in its own right. However, as we’ve discussed many times on this blog, it is also an important step in understanding how, and the extent to which, type Ia supernovae can serve as standardizable candles, with which we may track the expansion history of the universe. The current understanding of this has been enough to discover the fact that the universe is accelerating, but our future plans are to exploit it further, to help provide insight into the origin of cosmic acceleration. A detailed understanding of how supernova explosions occur would be a valuable contribution to this quest.

And they’re just lovely to watch.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and the Media
  • bigjohn756

    Aww, no sound.

  • Thomas

    “And they’re just lovely to watch”

    From a very, very long distance :-)

    “If you see this phase of the explosion you are driving too close”

  • Ken

    That was awesome! What program(s) did your group use to produce the animation? I’ve found Processing 1.0 ( to be useful for producing data visualizations.

  • John Edge

    When it comes to display of a visualisation, little I have seen beats “Science on a Sphere” developed by NOAA.

    They recognised that they had stacks of great science to demonstrate and explain, but saw that many presentation methods were difficult for much of the public.

    They came up with the idea of “Science on a Sphere”. This is a specialised display which is now showing in a number of museums worldwide, notably in the Smithsonian Natural History in DC. Four computer projectors play onto a sphere nearly 2m in diameter suspended in a room. They show ocean currents, continental drift, plate tectonics etc – in a way which is hard to do on flat 2D movie.

    Maybe it would do well for displaying some astronomical situations, like the evolution of a star – though its diameter is fixed, unlike some stars at the end of their life. Maybe we need 3D holographic projectors like in TNG….


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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