“Magnetic Field Outflows from Active Galactic Nuclei”
P.M. Sutter, P.M. Ricker, H.-Y. Yang, G. Foreman, D. Pugmire/ORNL

Wired has an article/webgallery of award-winning scientific visualizations which is worth a lunchtime visit. (Having trouble with Wired‘s interface? The videos collected there are the winners from SciDAC 2011’s “Visualization Night” challenge, so you can also just watch them here.)

These visualizations are not your usual public-facing educational animation. Rather, they’re just what you’d see at a scientific meeting – dry, functional, aimed at a specialist audience, and begging for added explanation/narration. Basically, they’re animated scientific posters.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. First, it’s good to see how visualization can be used within the scientific community to enhance dialogue. Second, it’s fun to watch something cryptic and guess what it could represent. “Active Galactic Nuclei,” for example, are “the powerful outflows associated with supermassive black holes in the centers of clusters.” (Now you know exactly what’s going on in the image above, right? No?) Wired adds, “This model shows an AGN’s magnetic field lines about 6 billion years after the Big Bang, and it occurs in a cube roughly as big as the observable universe.” That’s a little bit better, although envisioning a cube as big as the observable universe is not gonna happen in my little brain.

I’d love to see an exhibition of these animations playing on a loop in a plain white gallery space, with their credits and titles snipped off, so the audience would have to guess which was which from the curator’s list. Could you tell the difference between wind turbine wakes, blood flow, magnetic fields and “radiation hydrodynamics”? Well – probably; the blood cells and propellers are dead giveaways. 🙂 But still, science produces some mysterious video artifacts.