On June 3, as many as 2.5 million people will
get a glimpse of stunning simulations computed by scientists with the
National Computational Science Alliance (Alliance) and turned into digital
animations by visualization artists and programmers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois,

That’s the date when the Discovery Channel will premier a new science
documentary called “The Unfolding Universe” (9 p.m. Eastern – check local
listings). The show follows a team of astronomers and scientists to find
clues about the origins of our galaxy. The scientists attempt to pinpoint
the location of a strange and dangerous presence–a massive black
hole–hidden at the core of the galaxy. The NCSA-produced visualizations
comprise 20 minutes of the documentary, almost half the total air time.
Included is a spectacular rendition of a flight from earth to the massive
black hole at the center of the galaxy.

Thomas Lucas produced and directed the film. Donna Cox, NCSA’s interim
division director for experimental technologies and a professor in the
University of Illinois School of Art and Design, and Robert Patterson, an
NCSA visualization programmer, co-produced.

Cox, Patterson, and Stuart Levy, NCSA senior research programmer, spent
months working with leading astronomers, astrophysicists, and computational
scientists using NCSA’s Virtual Director software to develop visually
dramatic animations that help tell the story of the birth and life of the
Milky Way galaxy. Virtual Director enables users to navigate through
complex computer datasets and create camera choreography in a collaborative
virtual environment.

“We have created animations for television and movies in the past, but
we’ve never done anything quite this comprehensive before,” said Cox. “We
produced all the 3D digital graphics for this show, and it has been an
intense, rewarding, collaborative project involving people all over the

In total, the Virtual Director team delivered 29,413 frames of
visualizations to Lucas for use in the show. Many of the visualizations
were computed on the NCSA visualization group’s 80-processor Tiled Display
Wall Linux cluster. The animations include the work of a variety of
Alliance scientists and users of NCSA and Alliance resources:

*Three simulations by Tom Abel, an astrophysicist at Penn State University,
illustrate how the universe’s first cosmological objects formed, how the
first stars within them were born, and how they eventually died. The
computations were done with ENZO, a structured adaptive mesh refinement
(AMR) cosmological hydrodynamics code developed by Greg Bryan, Oxford
University, and Michael Norman, an Alliance cosmologist at the University
of California, San Diego. Ralf Kaehler, of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer
Gravitationsphysik and Zuse Institute Berlin, developed a special
volumetric rendering extension to software called Amira, which made it
possible to smoothly render the AMR nested grid data into stunning 3D

*Simulations by Ed Seidel, of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer
Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institute) and NCSA, show two colliding
black holes. The simulations were the largest ever done by Seidel’s
research group and depict rotation of black holes, with a collision
occurring about one-third of the way through the rotation. The
computations, done on NCSA’s Itanium Linux cluster and at the U.S.
Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center
(NERSC), used more than 1 million processor hours. Werner Benger, a
visualization specialist at the Max-Planck-Institut and Zuse Institute
Berlin, created the visualizations and worked with the Virtual Director
team to develop the animations.

*Work by Paul Woodward, head of the University of Minnesota’s Laboratory
for Computational Science and Engineering and an Alliance researcher, and
LCSE computational scientist David Porter depict stellar evolution. The
simulations show stellar fluid dynamics in a star that has exhausted its
supply of hydrogen and is nearing the end of its life, a process that is
staggeringly complex and turbulent, and requires massive computing power
to simulate and visualize.

*Depictions of the evolution of the early universe and interacting galaxies
were also done by UCSD’s Norman. The simulations were computed at NCSA and
show how hydrogen and helium in the early universe form protogalaxies as
well as the complex interactions among cosmological objects.

*Stellar cluster dynamics simulations were developed from data computed by
Simon Portegies Zwart, University of Amsterdam, and Steve McMillan, Drexel
University. These simulations were embedded into the animated flight from
the Earth, past numerous galactic center structures and into the massive
black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Reference imagery and scientific
consulting was provided by astronomers Mark Morris, UCLA, and Doug Roberts,
Northwestern University and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

*Simulations of colliding galaxies were taken from data computed by Chris
Mihos, Case Western Reserve University, and Lars Hernquist, Harvard

In addition, the Virtual Director team created visualizations from
astronomical data collected through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and by
University of Hawaii astronomer Brent Tully, who has compiled a database
of the “local” universe that can be observed from Earth.

“Through innovative technology and the dedicated work of creative
professionals like Donna Cox and Bob Patterson, we have been able to create
a film that shows the dynamics of our universe more clearly and in more
detail than ever before,” said Lucas. “For filmmakers, Virtual Director is
a wonderful tool that improves your ability to tell a story. For the
general public, it is a way to take huge, complicated computations done by
the world’s best scientists and depict them as something that can be
appreciated, understood and admired.”

Added Patterson, “Virtual Director and our immersive visualization
environment at NCSA enable us to create exciting, graceful voyages through
scientific datasets and take the audience on a voyage through the universe.”


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is a leader in developing and
deploying cutting-edge high-performance computing, networking, and
information technologies. NCSA is a partner in the TeraGrid project, a
National Science Foundation initiative to build and deploy the world’s
largest, fastest, most comprehensive, distributed infrastructure for open
scientific research. NCSA also leads the National Computational Science
Alliance (Alliance), a partnership to prototype an advanced computational
infrastructure for the 21st century that includes more than 50 academic,
government, and industry research partners. The NSF Partnerships for
Advanced Computational Infrastructure (PACI) program funds the Alliance. In
addition to the NSF, NCSA receives support from the state of Illinois, the
University of Illinois, private sector partners, and other federal
agencies. For more information, see http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu.