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The Beauty of Big Data

High-performance computing helps make sense of complex, scientific information.

Jan 31, 2017 6:00 AMNov 20, 2019 10:09 PM


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Photo Credits: Franco Pestilli, Indiana University in collaboration with Mike Jackson, Indiana University

When facing a challenging scientific problem, researchers often turn to supercomputers. These powerful machines crunch large amounts of data and, with the right software, spin out images that make the data easier to understand. Advanced computational methods and technologies, for instance, can provide unprecedented maps of the human brain. In the image at left, the colors represent white matter pathways that allow distant parts of the brain to communicate with each other.

For over 30 years, the National Science Foundation has invested in high-performance computing, both pushing the frontiers of advanced computing hardware and software and providing access to supercomputers for researchers across a range of disciplines. Use of NSF-supported research cyberinfrastructure resources is at an all-time high and continues to increase across all science and engineering disciplines.

The following images showcase the striking beauty of big data visualizations produced by NSF-funded advanced computing resources and the range of disciplines that rely on these critical scientific tools.

To learn more, go to nsf.gov.

Photo Credits: Paul Woodward, Laboratory for Computational Science and Engineering, University of Minnesota

Simulations help astrophysicists understand and model the turbulent mixing of star gases. This image, created at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC), depicts a 3-D mixing layer between two fluids of different densities in a gravitational field. In this case, a heavy gas is on top of a lighter one. This type of mixing plays an essential role in stellar convection.

Understanding mixing dynamics will help researchers with a long-term goal of visualizing the turbulent flows of an entire giant star, one similar to the sun. PSC is a leading partner in NSF’s eXtreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), which provides researchers and educators with the most powerful collection of advanced digital resources in the world.

Photo Credits: Yuhong Fan, Matthias Rempel, National Center for Atmospheric Research; visualization by National Center for Supercomputing Applications Advanced Visualization Laboratory

This glowing maelstrom results from magnetic arcs (orange lines) that shoot hundreds of thousands of kilometers above the sun’s surface. When the electrically charged arcs destabilize, they cause plasma to erupt from the sun’s surface. If one eruption follows another, the second will spew forth faster than the first, catching up and merging with it.

Researchers at National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ Advanced Visualization Laboratory are simulating events that trigger solar eruptions to aid prediction of future solar storms. Such advances will improve preparations to mitigate and prevent the storms’ worst effects such as knocking out the electric power grid and disrupting satellite communications.

Photo Credits: Philipp Moesta, Theoretical AstroPhysics Including Relativity and Cosmology, California Institute of Technology

This 3-D simulation captures the dynamics that lead to the explosive birth of a supernova. The red colors indicate hot chaotic material and the blue show cold, inert material. Two giant polar lobes form when strongly magnetized material ejected from the star’s center distorts and fails to launch cleanly away. The simulation was created on Stampede, a supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

Photo Credits:   JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, Media Arts and Technology, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); Luca Peliti, University of Naples, Italy; Lance Putnam, Media Arts and Technology, UCSB; photo by Kevin Steele

On the bridge of the Allosphere, one of the largest immersive scientific instruments in the world, researchers interact with a spinning hydrogen atom.

The bridge runs through the center of the spherical display, which includes stereo video projectors covering the entire visual field, immersive audio, and devices to sense, track and engage users. Located at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Allosphere allows researchers to visualize, explore and evaluate scientific data too small to see and hear. By magnifying the information to the human scale, researchers can better analyze the data to gain new insights into challenging problems.

Photo Credits: Albert William, Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

A combination of several visualization software packages converted experimental data from a scanning tunneling microscope as it probed a graphite surface.

The light saber-like feature is the microscope’s metal tip. The “molecular mountains” are formed when star-shaped molecules called “cyanostars” bind together. Molecules that self-assemble into patterns can be used to create new materials. In the case of this NSF-funded research, cyanostar-based material could be used to enhance organic electronic devices.

Photo Credits: Greg Foss, TACC

The chaos in this simulation captures the formation of a tornado, spawned from a supercell thunderstorm. The vortex ring at the top forms when strong updrafts punch into the stable stratosphere causing the air to curl downward.

The gold lines model vorticity (rotation) while the gray lines represent wind speed, with the red swath denoting the highest speeds. Produced by the Stampede supercomputer, this simulation and others like it are improving tornado forecasting and advancing early warning systems to protect lives and property.

Photo Credits: Min Chen, Rice University

Thanks to the work of NSF-funded researchers and 8 million CPU hours on the Stampede and Lonestar4 supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, it’s now possible to take a virtual tour of the Earth’s structures beneath East Asia.

Seismic data from 227 East Asia earthquakes over a five-year period were combined to create 3-D images of the Earth’s complex interior. By examining the movement of substructures that create earthquakes, researchers hope to learn more about their origins. The rock structures reach a depth of 560 miles (900 kilometers) below the Earth’s surface.

Photo Credits: Data courtesy of Michael Sukop, Sade Garcia, Florida International University and Kevin Cunningham, United States Geological Survey; visualization by Carson Brownlee, Aaron Knoll and Paul Navratil, TACC

NSF-funded geoscientists used ray-tracing software to follow the path of freshwater through limestone aquifers in south Florida as part of a water management project. Ray tracing simulates photons (light particles) as they bounce from a light source off an object and into our eyes. When used on high-performance computers such as Stampede, the software can improve depth perception in visualizations.

From manufacturing to medicine, high-performance computing and the visualizations it enables are essential to scientific, engineering and societal advances. NSF will continue to support critical cyberinfrastructure resources to ensure the Nation maintains its leadership position in this vital area.

The images in this NSF gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Paul A. Navratil, William Barth and Karla Vega, Texas Advanced Computing Center, University of Texas at Austin (TACC)

Naval ship design must account for interactions between the vessel, ocean waves, sea spray and the air. This simulation, generated using Longhorn at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, shows the turbulence that results as water flows past an airfoil acting as a ship’s hull.

The U.S. Navy uses such simulations to learn how water interacts with vessels. This includes understanding the power needed to overcome water resistance and the signature the ship leaves in its wake. Modeling also helps determine how waves affect ship stability.

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