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Computing for Insight

Fact Sheet

[comet simulation]
A comet impact simulation performed by Sandia scientists shows a column of superheated seawater exploding into the atmosphere eight seconds after the comet hits the ocean.

If a small comet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, Florida would have a lot in common with the fabled lost continent of Atlantis.

Because it had a curious 4-foot trombone-like crest, a Cretaceous Period dinosaur may prove that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

In these vastly different examples, huge amounts of raw numerical data are transformed into shape, form, and even sound by high-performance computing. This is called scientific visualization, a method of tapping into the brain's highest information processing capability -- the vision system. Scientific visualization helps scientists explore complex ideas and creative problem-solving because visualization is the most effective method of transferring the greatest amount of information in the shortest period of time. Numerical data that might take years to review can be communicated graphically in seconds.

Using pictures to represent data is nothing new. Consider how much easier it is to understand the relationship of a collection of numbers if they are represented in a bar graph or pie chart. The power of high-performance computing advances this concept far beyond mere pictures. Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories are creating simulations of events based on masses of raw data: a one kilometer comet weighing one billion tons, traveling at 60 kilometers per second, and impacting the earth in the Atlantic Ocean at a 45-degree angle. High-performance computing makes it possible to actually "see" the event unfold, from the comet vaporizing on impact into 100 billion tons of water, to a wall of water, initially many kilometers high, that could produce a 300-foot-high tsunami along the Atlantic coastline, to sun-blocking ice crystals blasting into the stratosphere.

In the case of the dinosaur, scientists recreated the vegetarian beast's entire skull and crest, complete with a complex labyrinth of chambers connected to its breathing passages, from scans of hundreds of layers of the 75-million-year-old fossil. From this image, they can replicate the sound it made. In addition, by identifying a particular type of bone found only in the nasal passages of warm-blooded animals, there is substantial evidence that not all dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles.

[dinosaur painting]
Sandia scientists converted hundreds of CAT (computerized axial tomography) scans into three-dimensional computer models, revealing a labyrinth of breathing tubes and passages inside the 4-foot fossilized crest of the Parasaurolophus dinosaur. Most paleontologists believe the crest served as a resonating chamber and allowed the dinosaur to make loud, low-frequency sounds.

Both investigations are important contributions to the entire scientific visualization process and are based on work done as part of Sandia's nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship mission. The comet crash simulation provided yet another way to exercise Sandia's "bang and splat" shock physics computer codes used to model many kinds of impacts. Creating computer images of the dinosaur skull and crest demonstrated that details that could not be identified through the most painstaking physical examination of the material could be revealed through digital reconstruction.

However, creating virtual events, or even creatures, isn't the only use for scientific visualization. Many other kinds of data can be transformed into three-dimensional images. For instance, the Navigating Science Project at Sandia analyzes scientific literature using virtual reality. The huge volume of papers published each year makes it difficult to identify all the papers on a particular topic and even more difficult to find ones on a similar topic. With this new "data mining" technique, scientific papers are spatially graphed by their content, creating a three-dimensional map of the literary terrain. Similar topics form "mountains" that would have been invisible in a flat, featureless data archive.

Technology Highlights

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy.

Technical Contacts:
David Crawford, comet modeling, (505) 845-8975, dacrawf@sandia.gov

Carl Diegert, dinosaur modeling, (505) 845-7193, diegert@sandia.gov

Chuck Meyers, navigating science, (505) 844-3459, cemeyer@sandia.gov

Media contact:
Larry Perrine, lgperri@sandia.gov (505) 845-8511

Last modified: December 8, 1997

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