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spacer spacer spacer spacer spacer February 07, 2008

Black hole ‘mini-movies’ help bring phenomena into view


Hans-Peter Bischof

Hans-Peter Bischof brings black holes into view in mini-movies that translate complex astrophysical research into computer graphics.

Bischof, associate professor of computer science in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, works closely with his colleagues at the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation to illustrate the computer code they use to simulate various black-hole scenarios. The center, located in the School of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Science, explores Einstein’s theory of general relativity using supercomputers to simulate black hole mergers and resulting gravity waves.

“The science done at the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation is very difficult to explain to the general public,” Bischof says. “A movie is one way to capture the essentials and let it speak for itself. This is one way to show what kind of work is executed at the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation.”

Serendipity led Bischof to visualizing black holes. In 2003, David Merritt, professor of physics, needed someone to illustrate his research. He asked Bischof if he knew somebody who could write a visualization system for a specific data set, and Bischof volunteered.

“I promised him a movie by the end of the quarter,” he said, “The movie was created and it went from there.”

The mini-movies Bischof made for Merritt are among the first to depict gravity-force calculations of such large size. In December 2007, History Channel’s series The Universe: Cosmic Holes featured some of Bischof’s more recent visualizations of black holes based on data produced by RIT scientists Manuela Campanelli, Carlos Lousto, Merritt and Yosef Zlochower.

“Bischof’s work is crucial because it provides new tools for visualizing and analyzing very complex data from astrophysical simulations,” says Campanelli, director of the center.

Bischof takes a new approach to visualizing scientific data. Instead of using existing programs, Bischof created a framework system called “Spiegel,” German for “mirror,” coined by Jonathan Cole, the first student to work with Bischof on this project. (Cole was, at the time, in Germany on a study-abroad program that Bischof himself created.) The framework gives Bischof complete control and flexibility to add components and functionality. It serves like an operating system that executes visualization programs he and his student assistants make.

According to Bischof, creating a single movie can take minutes or weeks, depending on the kind of data and images required. He is currently in the process of visualizing 3-D gravity waves, a program that will take weeks to write and weeks or months for his computer to execute and create the movie.

In addition to galactic events like galaxy mergers, black hole mergers and gravity waves, Spiegel also can make movies of scenarios closer to home, such as how a mine looks like after a collapse, the structures of a protein, and how a rumor spreads through a social network. Other applications of Bischof’s framework could extend to tracing the plague’s path through Europe, poison moving in a river and the migration of the Monarch butterfly.

Susan Gawlowicz

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