Skip to main content

NCSA visualizations help tell ‘Life: A Cosmic Story’

How did life on Earth begin? This tantalizing question forms the basis of Life: A Cosmic Story, which will premiere Nov. 6 at the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco. This all-digital production, produced by the California Academy of Sciences, features a scene created by NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory.

AVL visualized a seamless journey into the Milky Way galaxy to see the early stages of our solar system before the earth was formed, 5 billion years ago. Viewers fly though lanes of gas and dust into a turbulent molecular cloud where our newly formed sun is accreting a protoplanetary disk prior to the formation of the planets.

“These visualizations show beautiful but mysterious processes that led to the formation of our own sun and earth,” says AVL leader Donna Cox.

The AVL team integrated scientific simulations and observed data sets to create the two-minute voyage. They visualized the protoplanetary disk from data computed by Aaron Boley, Sagan Fellow at the University of Florida, using AVL’s data visualization plug-in for Maya. The disk was embedded in a turbulent molecular cloud, simulated by Alexei Kritsuk and Michael Norman from the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, University of California at San Diego. Their adaptive mesh refinement simulation was rendered using AVL’s custom Amore volume renderer.

AVL used their ultra-high-resolution 3D display and Virtual Director™ software to design the multi-scale flight path in real-time, while pre-visualizing the scene with their interactive Partiview Software. The Milky Way galaxy, molecular cloud, protoplanetary disk and our sun were each rendered separately in high-dynamic range using different visualization techniques for each layer and composited to create the final dome imagery.

AVL staff involved in the Life project were Cox (producer), Robert Patterson (visualization designer), Stuart Levy (visualization programmer), Alex Betts (visualization programmer), Matthew Hall (visualization programmer), and AJ Christensen (visualization programmer).

Narrated by two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, Life begins in a grove of towering redwoods, majestic emblems of Northern California. From there, the audience “shrinks” dramatically as it enters a single redwood leaf and then a redwood cell, learning that redwoods are composed of the same basic molecules as all other organisms on Earth. Then the audience witnesses key events since the Big Bang, including the sequence created by AVL: the first stars ignite, galaxies coalesce, and entire worlds take shape. On the early Earth, two scenarios for the dawn of life are presented—one near a turbulent, deep-sea hydrothermal vent, and the other in a primordial “hot puddle” on a volcanic island. From these microscopic beginnings, life transformed the entire Earth as it evolved and diversified: filling the atmosphere with oxygen, turning the continents green, and altering global climate patterns. The 25-minute show ends with a review of geological evidence and the connectedness of all living things on Earth.

“The show’s core concept is that all life on Earth is related, having evolved from a common ancestor,” says Ryan Wyatt, director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization. “Taking an even longer view, we see that life’s origins begin with dark matter and the first stars—our pedigree is actually 13.7 billion years in the making.”

Life: A Cosmic Story will play seven to 10 times every day in Morrison Planetarium through late 2011. Content advisers included scientists from the Academy, NASA Astrobiology Institute, SETI Institute, and University of California, Santa Cruz.

For information about visiting the Academy, including admission prices and show times, visit or call (415) 379-8000.

About the Advanced Visualization Laboratory

The Advanced Visualization Laboratory’s (AVL) mission is to communicate science, inspiring audiences to learn about scientific concepts through capturing the thrill of scientific discovery and wonder of complex systems. Working in close collaboration with domain scientists, AVL creates high-resolution, cinematic, data-driven scientific visualizations.

Each member of the AVL team plays a unique role and contributes a variety of skills to the process, development, and production. Our expertise includes advanced graphics and visualization techniques, artistic design, cinematic choreography, multimedia and video production, and data management and render wrangling.

AVL is a partner with the Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media (eDream) Institute.

For more information:

Disclaimer: Due to changes in website systems, we've adjusted archived content to fit the present-day site and the articles will not appear in their original published format. Formatting, header information, photographs and other illustrations are not available in archived articles.

Back to top