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Frank Summers has created a galaxy or two in his day.
The Columbia astronomer used a supercomputer to create a highly detailed computer animation showing how galaxies formed after the start of the universe. The animation is part of the IMAX film "Cosmic Voyage," which began its run at the American Museum of Natural History last week and will be seen at many of the 125 IMAX theaters worldwide.
Two early minutes of the 35-minute movie were created by Dr. Summers, a postdoctoral research scientist who divides his time between the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory and the museum. The screen first shows a vast web of what astronomers call filaments, strings of matter tens of millions of light years long that formed soon after the Big Bang. Along one filament, galaxies form as knots and, where filaments intersect, clusters of galaxies form. As clouds of gas and stars orbit one another, viewers witness galactic development. Finally, complex tidal interactions within a cluster flow into the film's next sequence, a simulated galactic collision.
"These stunning visuals will expose viewers to current theories about the formation of the universe," Dr. Summers said. "It is exceptional, and very gratifying, that the producers went to these lengths to incorporate current astronomical research in the film."
Through a continued combination of live-action footage and advanced computer animation, the film takes viewers from Galileo's Venice in successive steps, each ten times further away than the last, to the edge of the universe, 15 billion light years away. Racing back to earth, the film lands in Delft, the Dutch town where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope. Now traveling inward by powers of 10, the audience peers into the smallest particle known to science, the quark.
Dr. Summers spent months developing the scientific data and rendering the actual visuals on a dedicated Silicon Graphics Power Challenge supercomputer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The center developed a new virtual reality technique that allowed animators to choreograph camera movement through evolving three-dimensional space to visualize motion. Each of the nearly 5000 frames of ultra-high resolution images required for an IMAX film, projected on screens up to eight stories high, took from 10 minutes to several hours on the supercomputer. Of the 5000 frames, about 2500 were devoted to Dr. Summers' galaxy sequence.
He received his Ph.D. at Berkeley and most recently held a postdoctoral research position at Princeton. His joint appointment is part of an evolving cooperative program of research and public education between Columbia and the natural history museum, said David Helfand, professor and chairman of astronomy at Columbia.
For "Cosmic Voyage" reservations at the museum, call (212) 769-5200.