Professor’s Visualization on Origin of Water Attracts International Recognition

Published: February 04, 2019 | Author: Andrew Brown | Read Time: 3 minutes

Physics professor Brandon Wiggins smiling with Tesla CoilThe birthplace of water in the universe has been the focus of Southern Utah University professor Brandon Wiggins’ research for a long time. Recently, that research garnered him second place for the Best Scientific Visualization at an international competition hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

“I’m a guy that looks for water in the universe in general,” Wiggins says of his research. By better understanding the origins of water in the universe and how that water is formed, Wiggins hopes to help answer the question of how common life is in the universe.

“As much as half the water in our solar system didn’t come from here, so there is this question about where it all comes from,” says Wiggins. “Our simulations showed that this story could begin as early as the first stars, at the very beginning of the universe, going supernova. These supernovae spew elements such as oxygen, silicon and carbon into the depths of space. The energy from these blast waves heats surrounding clouds of gas, drives chemical reactions, and causes the very first trace amounts of water to form. So you have this star that is dying, and that death gives rise to these molecules that we know to be life-giving.

Wiggins was the principal investigator on the project, “The First Water in the Universe,” which brought together scientists from SUU, the University of Texas at Austin and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Together they worked to create a groundbreaking scientific visualization that combines chemistry, cosmology and art to create visually stunning representations of complex data sets.

“What we’ve done for the first time is combine chemistry with these cosmology calculations and plotting multiple things in the same 3D space,” says Wiggins. “We were approached by Francesca Samsel from the University of Texas at Austin, who is one of the world’s experts at visualizing scientific data sets. She wanted to tell the story in a way that was beautiful because she thought there was poetry about the story. The way she leveraged her incredible knowledge of color, and what compliments and what doesn’t, helps guide the eye to things that are scientifically relevant in the simulation.”

Screenshot of Brandon Wiggin's visualization video of the origin of water in the universeBy working together to combine all of the scientific data together in the same 3D space Wiggins’ team has been able to create data visualizations that are both beautiful and scientifically useful. The team’s visualization was showcased at IEEE where it received the second place prize. Thousands attended including representatives from Apple, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and other tech and computing companies.

“They have one of the premier scientific visualization showcases in the world because, for the computing community, data visualization is a really important issue right now,” said Wiggins. “The problem we are trying to address is how do you make big data accessible.”

Two positive outcomes came from the “The First Water in the Universe” simulation. Not only did the team’s video visualize Wiggins’ years of research on the origins of water it also showcased the potential and options for data visualization to a worldwide audience of giants in the technology industry.

Brandon Wiggins is an assistant professor of physics in SUU’s College of Science and Engineering.

Tags: Research Physics

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