Visualising a universe of data

16 Jan 2018 - 11:30

By harnessing advanced technologies to create immersive visualisations, the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome is in a position not only to help researchers rapidly advance our understanding of the world, but also to make that same information available to the public in an easily accessible visual form. This is particularly true for big data.

Guests to the launch of the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome were treated to a display of how the new facility can be used for both research and edutainment. This advanced planetarium technology with immersive visualisation facilities is not only able to help researchers rapidly advance our understanding of the world, but also to make that information available to the public in an easily accessible, visual form.

Big data refers to the large, complex data sets created and collected through technology. They can range from the data generated by social media or projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) to the big data produced by genome sequencing.

“In the world of huge data sets, some data can only be understood if you can see it,” says UCT Emeritus Professor Danie Visser, patron of the Iziko Planetarium and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law in Hamburg. “This is a powerful tool across all disciplines.”

The SKA project is an obvious candidate for the digital dome. Massive data sets are already being created as MeerKAT, the precursor to the SKA telescope, comes online.

This has positive implications for the public, too. It means that, in time, we won’t only be reading about the SKA discoveries in headlines; we will also be able to view the secrets of the universe at the planetarium. And, as more researchers from other fields use the facility for data analysis, more ground-breaking science will be visualised and made available to the public.

Using the dome to study the structure of the universe

Professor Tom Jarrett, UCT’s Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation South African Research Chair in Astrophysics and Space Science, is studying the structure of the universe, trying to better understand the life cycle of galaxies.

Galaxies are not scattered randomly around the universe; they are clustered together in the groups that make up the cosmic web. To study these structures, Jarrett works with data sets that can easily include a million or more galaxies.

“These cosmic structures are really big; it’s difficult to study them on a computer screen,” he says. Each data set is loaded into a 3D catalogue in which each galaxy is mapped according to its coordinates in space. Because Jarrett has the coordinates, he can project them onto the dome and fly around the galaxy structures.

“Within these galaxy catalogues, I am trying to find new structures of galaxies,” he explains. “With the immersive dome, I can actually fly into the data set. I can spy and isolate particular structures and accurately measure the gaps and filaments between the galaxy clusters.”

So far, Jarrett is the only researcher to use the digital dome for research. Part of his role is to ensure the computing support and necessary software for this facility is available for researchers to use. With his colleague Professor Michelle Cluver, associate director of the Inter-University Institute for Data-Intensive Astronomy, he is also running a series of workshops and presentations for researchers in the Western Cape, to showcase how the facility can be used for research purposes.

“To learn how galaxies are born, evolve and grow, we need to study their environment – where they draw fuel from to grow, and gravity to shape their development. This is the cosmic web that we consider the context for galaxy evolution,” says Jarrett.

“Because of the immersive nature of the dome, this is an excellent facility to help researchers really get deep into their data. It offers both the breadth and the 3D capacity to allow you to study your data from all angles, which are so limited on a flat screen.”