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Astronomy’s 3D Revolution

Simple 3D tools could bring astronomy alive for scientists and the public alike. But the techniques are woefully underused, argue two astronomers

When it comes to scientific visualisations, biochemists are the undisputed champions. These guys embraced 3D techniques to represent complex molecules at the dawn of the computer age.
That’s made a huge difference to the way researchers understand and appreciate each other’s work. In fact, it’s fair to say that biochemistry would not be a poorer science without efficient 3D visualisation tools.
Now, Frederic Vogt and Alexander Wagner at the Australian National University argue that astronomy could benefit in a similar way from simple 3D tools.
“Stereo pairs are not merely an ostentatious way to present data, but an enhancement in the communication of scientifific results in publications because they provide the reader with a realistic view of multi-dimensional data, be it of observational or theoretical nature,” they say.
Not that astronomers have entirely ignored 3D. Various Mars missions, such as the Phoenix and Pathfinder landers as well as the Mars Express Orbiter, have all had the ability to take stereo pictures. And various cosmologists have used impressive 3D visualisations to show off their simulations and measurements of the Universe on the largest scales.
Nevertheless, Vogt and Wagner feel sure that these techniques should be more widely used.
That’s surely a worthy goal, not least because of the widespread availability of electronic publishing and viewing techniques which make 3D images much easier to make, send and to see.
Astronomy is the study of structures on the largest scale but we’re generally shown the results in flat images. So 3D techniques have the power to bring these strcutures alive, not just for astrophysicists, but for the broader public too.
Vogt and Wagner choose stereo pairs as their preferred 3D tool and give a number of examples in their paper. I’ve reproduced two of them here. Above is a simulation of a relativistic jet from an active galactic nuclei. Below is the view from within a simulated cloud.
Incidentally, Vogt and Wagner advocate the so-called free viewing technique for stereo pairs. “With the left and right images side-by-side, it is up to the reader to have each eye looking at one image only, thus recreating the 3D feeling.”
That’s laughably Victorian. If you don’t mind cross-eyes, blurred sight and headaches, you’ll love that idea. Otherwise, it’s unlikely to win over many converts.
Here, I’ve combined the image pairs into animated gifs. That’s simple, easy and makes excellent use of the brain’s powerful image processing ability.
The original stereo pairs are in the reference cited below. If you prefer free-viewing, that is.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1107.2715: Stereo Pairs In Astrophysics

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