January Meeting Report

This year, for the first time in the 80 year history of the ASV, a January General Meeting has been scheduled. Halfway through the school holidays it became part of the activities for a Country Member get-together on the weekend 10/11 of January. My wife Ursula and I came in on the tail-end of it, in time for a tasty open air barbeque and a bit of sunspot counting with display telescopes set up in the Observatory grounds. At 20:00 we all adjourned to the Herbarium for the meeting.

The syllabus item was presented by Dr Christopher Fluke, whom we met before, you may recall, in early 2000 in his mystery quest for “Ray Bundle”, a project to build a computer model for determining the density gradients of space. This time the subject proved to be equally mysterious, with a title the audience was asked to guess from an opening series of picture snapshots through the ages: there was a drawing of Halley’s Comet of 1070CE, the Starry Night painting by Vincent van Gogh, the first Redshift Survey 1986, colliding galaxies made visible by the Hubble Space Telescope etc. Now what could be the common theme running through all of this? You guessed it? Visualising the Universe, of course, the title for tonight’s talk.
When Christopher Fluke was six years old he became fascinated with images of the universe after seeing the science fiction movie, Star Wars. Now Chris teaches at Swinburne's Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing and, when he gets the time, continues his astrophysical research by making movies at Swinburne about the stars, based on science fact."Our goal is to make some of the best, most realistic simulations of astronomical objects in the world, by combining our knowledge of astronomy with our computer skills", says Chris, as he blends facts with aesthetics and entertaining education.

Making sense of what we see is a controversial and much talked about scientific subject these days. It seems not only in astronomy do we need a preconceived notion, an idea, of what we are looking for; even in daily life we are told our mind sometimes ignores the new and unexpected, which we may not even see, much less recognise, unless our mind has a related pattern already stored somewhere in the brain to compare it with. Our own, private reality. We are most receptive to what we think is realistic. So, much of Dr Fluke and his team’s efforts in visualising the universe is concentrated on presenting the universe in a way our mind, with our current awareness of the facts, sees it. Because true-to-scale/time presentations of the solar system or star system are impossible to display in one picture or screen without losing all the details, a bit of poetic (or astrological?) license on comparative size and time is often used to better bring out the relevant facts. Just as it is impossible to show the structure of an atom in its true perspective, a mental environment for understanding the cosmos (or a new aspect of the universe) needs to be created first before we can hope to make sense of its details. Visualisation is a critical part in this understanding process. Visualisation speeds up our “coming to terms” with new information and prepares the mind to draw its own conclusions from such an input, or realise its implications.
Even though the human mind has over time adapted to recognise a two dimensional picture as a reasonable representation of reality, true realism (and best visualisation) is still achieved with three dimensional displays. Modern high-speed computers and programs have made it possible to present the mass of data necessary for a factual, three dimensional real-time movie to be shown to an audience, and over 3000 students and visitors have visited the 3D Theatre at Swinburne over the last two years to watch shows like: Elysium 7, a tourist flight to the red planet; Our Sun, what a Star; a Flight through the Universe; and Infinity Express.

We were given a sample of “Flight through the Universe”, a movie showing what it would be like to journey from the Earth through the Solar system, through the Milky Way Galaxy and the local Supercluster, through the huge filament structures and voids of the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey to the end of the known Universe. A remarkable demonstration how aesthetics are matched to realism for best visualisation, graphically communicating the latest breakthroughs in our quest to understand cosmology.

The vote of appreciation was given by Barry Cleland, with the hope to see Dr Christopher Fluke again in the not-too-distant future, to hear more of his astronomical success stories.

Nb. The Swinburne Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing has expertise in scientific visualisation and hosts a number of public outreach and educational activities in its virtual reality theatre. Along with producing 3D movies for use in its virtual reality theatres, Swinburne has created sequences for international planetarium shows, and enabled astronomers to promote their work to the world.