Ken Tapping, December 4th, 2018
Virtual reality (VR) is radically changing the way we do science. For example, this is an experience I had at a recent solar conference. I put on the headset, and instantly I found myself hanging above the surface of the Sun. In front of me was a great loop, with its footpoints anchored to the surface and extending up into space far above my head. It was hundreds of times bigger than the Earth and still growing. A close look showed it to be made of loosely braided fibres, moving and stretching as the loop grew, getting higher and higher. Suddenly, some fibres snapped, releasing flashes of energy. The snapping rapidly spread, until the loop had completely broken loose from its moorings and the released stress catapulted most of the loop into space at thousands of kilometres a second. Of course, if I were actually transported this close to the Sun, I would have been destroyed before I even knew I was there. I was watching a virtual reality computer animation showing a theory explaining how coronal mass ejections are launched. These things can have devastating effects on our communications, power and transportation infrastructure. On a different occasion, I put on the headset and I was inside a molecule of DNA. I watched the double helix separate into two single helices, and then the various bases arrange themselves into two double helices of DNA. Both of these are examples of the growing use of virtual reality technology in science.
A major part of scientific research is plotting graphs. We use them to show how things change with time, or how two or three different processes might be related. Graphs continue to be important tools in our work. However they have a powerful limitation. In nature, most phenomena are actually driven by many relationships. Over the last ten or twenty years we have learned that these individual relationships might be simple, but when we combine many of them, the result can be extremely complicated. A good example is a collision between a pair of galaxies. The whole thing is driven by one force: gravity, but what actually happens is amazingly complicated. The best way to see how well our simulations or models compare with what we see happening out in space is to use virtual reality. You can "sit there in space", with a million years or so passing a second, being able to look around at all the different things that are going on. Since these collisions take millions of years, we cannot observe the whole process, but fortunately we are finding lots of galactic collisions out there, all at various stages.
Now we are seeing a new application of virtual reality technology. Just as a pilot can fly a drone half a world away from where he or she is sitting, we can now sit in a "virtual control room" enjoying almost the whole experience of being at the telescope. We can adjust instruments, look at the data as it comes in, and overlook everything else going on at the telescope. This offers the great advantage that our observations can be scheduled when conditions are best for making them, rather than fixing them to the time we manage to get flights. It saves a lot of money and time too.
Modern astronomical instruments, like the CHIME radio telescope at our observatory, or even more so, the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, which is an international project in which Canada is participating, produce a tsunami of data. How do we get to grips with this flood of data? Looking at printouts and plotting graphs definitely won't work. The two tools that will be crucially important are virtual reality techniques for taking an overall look at the data, and the assistance of artificial intelligence systems to help us find what we are looking for, or more importantly, to discover the unusual needles hiding in that huge haystack.
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