Students take challenging class assignment to the wall

June 24, 2002 11:56 a.m.

By the time he finished teaching the class "History of the Earth" last fall, geoscientist Hans-Peter Bunge had begun to see his own research in a new way -- quite literally.

As a class project, junior Aaron Sarfatti and senior Michael Newman converted Bunge's mathematical models of heat flow in the Earth into a vivid visual simulation on the 18-foot-wide display wall in the Frist Campus Center.

Far more than just a pretty picture, said Bunge, the visualization represents an important proof-of-concept for scientists in all disciplines who, after taking advantage of increasingly powerful computers, face the problem of how to sort through and view the important elements of their data.

"The solution that Aaron and Michael came up with is really quite remarkable," said Bunge, an assistant professor of geosciences.

In his research, Bunge uses a supercomputer to study how heat flows from Earth's core into the crust, driving everything from continental drift to the formation of volcanoes. The simulation allows him to explore and tinker with processes that, in the real Earth, take tens of millions of years. The results are so complex, however, that no ordinary computer monitor can display all the data at once.

The Frist display wall, itself driven by a supercomputing cluster made of eight ordinary PCs, offers the opportunity to show exquisitely detailed images over a very large area. The wall, said Bunge, engages yet another remarkable computer -- the human brain. "At these scales, when the number of data points becomes so large, you can only understand it by using your brain as a visual information processor," said Bunge.

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Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601