Virtual Universe

Centuries of astronomy, plus video-game technology, offer a stunning new perspective on our place in space.

To view the Digital Universe atlas created at the Hayden Planetarium, you can use a program called Partiview (for “particle view”), developed by Stuart Levy, a research programmer at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. A Partiview user can explore any part of the observable universe. The technology renders a series of perspective views fast enough for you to explore the database of stars and galaxies as if you were “traveling” in real time, rather than flipping through two-dimensional snapshots, one after another.

The illusion of motion is critical to gaining an understanding of the spatial relations among celestial objects, because it gives the viewer a physical experience of the scales and positions of the objects. As you move among the stars and galaxies in the vicinity of our Sun and our Milky Way, you learn how to find your way around. But you may also find that it’s all too easy—and a humbling and disorienting experience—to get lost!

Cruising the stars and galaxies is no longer confined to facilities with supercomputers and multiple video projectors. The technological innovations that fueled advances at the Hayden Planetarium and other large institutions around the world are making their way into smaller domes as well, and even onto laptop computers. Single fish-eye projectors that cover an entire dome now display digital skies in planetariums in many schools, science centers, and public libraries.

The observable universe is immense beyond any ordinary experience, but not beyond the human ability to chart, visualize, and share. We begin to grasp its immensity by translating it into something we can see. As visual creatures, we use “immersive” technology to gain a sense of familiarity with the region around us, beginning with the Earth and moving constantly outward to expand our horizon of the familiar. By experiencing our place in ever-widening regions, we come to identify a much larger “home” than we ever imagined before. In much the way our species has, for millennia, viewed the night sky with awe, perhaps the Digital Universe can help stimulate a cosmic perspective toward our own species.

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