Students take challenging class assignment to the wall

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- 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.

*From left, Michae Newman, Hans-Peter Bunge and Aaron Sarfatti talk in fron the the Frist Campus Center display wall, which provides a vivid picture of their work


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.

In the students' visualization, the Earth appears in two cut-away views with different colors representing different temperature zones. As the simulation runs, plumes of heat rise from the core and emerge from the surface. About 100 million years pass in 10 minutes. Sarfatti and Newman filled part of the screen with interesting facts and background taken from the class.

Translating his simulations to the display wall computers posed many technical challenges for the students, said Bunge. "They have done an independent research project that is, by any comparison, state of the art," he said.

For Sarfatti and Newman, the project started as a way to avoid the final paper for the course, which Bunge co-teaches with Professor of Geosciences Michael Bender. "We probably replaced a few hours of work with a few hundred," said Newman.

Sarfatti, a computer science major, said his interest grew out of a brief mention that Bunge made of his research during the class. It has now spawned two more projects involving four other students, including his junior independent research. In one project, he helped accelerate Bunge's original simulation; in the other, he helped develop a user-friendly interface that could assist other scientists in applying the visualization technique to their own data.

"It was a great progression from one little meeting after class," said Sarfatti. "I almost feel like I have a 'mini-grad-student' role." Now he hopes to develop his work with Bunge into next year's senior thesis.


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