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The Building Blocks Behind Cosmic Wonder

Today, light pollution has sapped much of the richness of the sky (certainly in Chicagoland), and instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope have revealed incredible vistas across the Universe only deepening our sense of wonder. Presented with this information, I knew immediately the technology I wanted to use to create this sky show. For years we’ve been collaborating with colleagues at Microsoft Research on the implementation of their Worldwide Telescope software in the Planetarium dome. The results are, I believe, truly revolutionary. For decades planetaria served as simulators of the night sky as viewed with the human eye.  Now for the first time we can properly simulate, in context, the telescopic view. Furthermore we can combine views from all the world’s telescopes creating a virtual observatory in the theater. I find this all incredibly exciting, enabling a completely new type of planetarium experience. If you’ll indulge me a bit I’d like to describe some or my history with WorldWide Telescope (WWT).

 In 2005 Randy Landsberg organized a conference at the University of Chicago entitled “The Visualization of Astronomical Data.” I was a on the organizing committee as well. Another organizer was my former Ph.D. thesis advisor, Johns Hopkins professor Alex Szalay.  At the time Alex was in charge of designing and building the data archive for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Alex suggested Jim Gray, a Turing Award winning computer scientist at Microsoft Research who was helping with the SDSS data challenges would make a great speaker. Jim couldn’t make it unfortunately, but he suggested that we invite one of his Microsoft Research colleagues, Curtis Wong. Curtis was done some pioneering work in interactive multimedia, and had a concept for creating a storytelling platform for the content rich field of Astronomy. The conference turned out to be a tremendous success really advancing the emerging Astrovisualization field. In particular, Curtis’s presentation really energized the audience. A number of the people there, notably Harvard Professor Alyssa Goodman, encouraged Curtis to turn his concept into reality. Another person at the conference was a brilliant University of Chicago graduate student in computer science named Dinoj Surendran. Dinoj was working with Randy and I on visualizations for museums. He possessed a remarkable ability for making connections across fields and had done some truly creative data visualization work.

Fast forward to 2007. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific was hosting a conference in Chicago and I invited Curtis to speak at a day-long Astrovisualization workshop I was organizing at Adler beforehand. Curtis asked if his genius programmer could attend as well. “If he is a genius, sure” I replied. The programmer was Jonathan Fay – an amazing man who was a former LA cop, race car driver, triathlete, and amateur astronomer in addition to being a genius programmer. Curtis and Jonathan blew everyone away with the demos of what they were creating. A beautifully designed piece of software that allowed people to smoothly zoom in and out of the sky. We could now see beautiful deep sky objects in their true context of the sky. In addition there was the ability to author and share tours of the sky. It was clear that this would be a revolution in astronomical visualization and education. In the meantime Dinoj had gotten his Ph.D. and had applied for an internship at Microsoft Research. He was accepted and started working with the WWT team as a data curator.

Worldwide Telescope was released to much acclaim in 2008. It was named after the title of a paper by Alex Szalay and Jim Gray describing the concept for what is now the Virtual Observatory, and dedicated to Jim who was tragically lost at sea months earlier. Doug Roberts and I contributed some on the initial tours and made promotional videos for the release. Dinoj started advocating to Jonathan for a planetarium version of WWT. At first the concept didn’t make sense, the sky mode of WWT works by changing the field of view, but the field of view in a planetarium is always 180 degrees. Still Dinoj didn’t give up and managed to convince Jonathan to build in planetarium support. There were a series of week-long visits of Jonathan to Adler, one with his daughter Joy, the next with his daughter Emily and one as a stop on a family RV trip across the country. All the time WWT’s planetarium functionality was getting more mature and with Jonathan’s assistance we were deploying more and more WWT based exhibits across the museum.

In 2012 Chris Lintott gave a lecture using WWT in the Granger Sky Theater. The response was amazing. All we did visually was slowly zoom in and out of 10 Hubble images, yet people were spellbound. Zooming into objects made it seem like galaxies and nebulae were dropping down on people. I remembering watching from the console as it seemed like the audience of 200 was being crushed by the Orion Nebula.

Cosmic Wonder is the next step forward, a complete planetarium show created and running inside WWT. I believe that what we’ve created is not only a great show for our visitors, but also a prototype for a new kind of planetarium show. Cosmic Wonder is is now open and I’m grateful for the opportunity this blog post has given me to document the historical arc and credit some of the many people who made this production possible. Dinoj Surendran passed away in 2010, without his vision this project would never have occurred. I’m inspired to make this show as good as possible to make it worthy of his legacy.

The support from Microsoft Research throughout the years has been incredible. Jonathan’s generosity is without par. Dan Fay (Jonathan’s boss at MSR) has been very supportive of Cosmic Wonder, sending out Jonathan and Chris Laurel early in the project to build new features needed for the production. It is a great show and I hope you can all come and see it.

Written by Dr. Mark SubbaRao, astronomer, director of the Adler's Space Visualization Lab, and creator of Cosmic Wonder.

 

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