THE PROFESSOR AND THE BUTTERFLY
Expanding her talents in yet another direction, Aimee Weber went right from creating the movie version of the solar system to preparing the stage for viewing last week's solar eclipse simulcast from Turkey to a server in Second Life. It isn't every day that you get to work with a nationally renowned scientist in a virtual world, let alone grope him, so I asked Aimee to document her efforts on this groundbreaking event here.
Creating the Eclipse
When I first met Paul Doherty he complimented me on my pretty Blue Morpho butterfly wings. I thought he was a very nice man. He then explained how my wings are blue because they were made of microscopic box-like structures which are 500 nanometers in size, the same wavelength as blue light!
OK, so Paul was an extraordinary man. Paul Doherty is an MIT Doctor of Physics, published author, rock climber, Antarctic explorer, David Letterman guest, professor at the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco ... and most recently the newest denizen of Second Life's famed Midnight City.
For the month of March, I teamed up with Paul and his San Francisco Exploratorium cohort, Rob Rothfarb, for a daring mission-- to invite all of Second Life to join us in the biggest scientific bash of the year. I am, of course, talking about the solar eclipse that happened on March 29, 2006. The good folks at the Exploratorium determined that the ideal viewing area for this spectacular event would be a second-century Roman amphitheater in Side, Turkey.
To bring this event to the rest of the world, the footage was recorded live by four telescopes: two in white light and two with hydrogen-alpha filters. Conventional cameras also captured Paul as he hosted the festivities in true "rock star of science" fashion. This footage was streamed live to London via satellite, then to Atlanta via fiber optic cable, then to an encoding center in Denver via satellite, and finally to our desktop computers via the Internet. The soul-crushing complexity of this project is something only Rob Rothfarb could have handled while maintaining his sanity.
But these challenges are child's play for the Vikings of science we know at the Exploratorium. And this year they wanted to take the challenge one step further-- they wanted the event to go virtual. The first task in bridging the gap between the virtual and actual event was to create the Roman amphitheater where the event was taking place in Turkey. Rob was kind enough to furnish me with a collection of detailed high resolution photos of the theater, but building a model from photos alone can be a complicated process.
Without a detailed floor plan, I found myself in a constant state of discovery. For example, areas that initially appeared to simply be discolored stone formations were eventually revealed to be fairly significant outcroppings when compared to photos taken from other angles. It was almost like a forensic process as I spent night after night hunting for clues in my two-dimensional images so that I could draw a three-dimensional picture in my mind, and eventually in Second Life.
Next we needed educational exhibits to help solidify exactly why and how this solar event was happening. Most notable was our planetarium exhibit that depicted the motion of the moon as it cast a shadow across a rotating Earth. Immediately we knew that creating a scale model of these heavenly bodies would be problematic.
You see, space is full of nothing. A whole lot of nothing. Seriously, TONS of NOTHING. Unless we wanted to display two small prims separated by a sim full of nothing, we would have to adjust the scale for easy viewing. I then carefully calculated the rotation of the earth, tilted the axis of rotation 23.45 degrees in a proper relation to the sun for spring, moved the moon into orbit at its natural 5 degree tilt between the Earth and the sun and...
PRESTO! Nothing worked! It was as if Galileo's tutu-wearing waitress butterfly spilled coffee all over his star charts. But before I packed up my bags and ran back to the world of fashion sobbing, I asked Paul to look at the problem. It was just a matter of minutes before he concluded that most of my calculations were correct, however, since I wasn't using a scale model, I had to exaggerate the moon's 5 degree orbital tilt. He was right, and the new model perfectly reflected the actual path taken by the moon's shadow during the event. I complimented Paul on his scientific genius, but reminded him that I was the fashionable one in the relationship.
He then reminded me that he was in an Italian issue of Vogue for Men. Pwned.
The moment of truth came on March 29, 2006 at 2AM PST. That's 5AM "Aimee Time" which was a time of day that, until this event, I only believed existed as a theoretical possibility. But I was too charged with adrenaline to mind the exhaustion, and so were the crowds that attended. While frantically attending to last minute details, I was able to stop and catch the overwhelming sense of optimism and camaraderie that exuded from the people. With Paul on the big screen in Turkey, people joked, traded stories and lectured science facts until the moment drew closer. Then there was silence.
I stood beside Rob as we gazed at the big screen and thought how much this felt like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. My anticipation grew as I watched the moon creep closer and closer into a position of total solar coverage. Then it happened.
As the moon covered the last slice of the sun, we could see the beautiful shimmer as the sun's photosphere shined through the lunar valleys creating a stunning visual effect known as "Baily's beads." Just as we could hear the crowd in Turkey go wild, so too did the folks in Second Life, as they expressed themselves by typing "woooooo" and "yay!" I turned and hugged Rob as he simply repeated "we did it!" It was a long, exhausting project, but one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I learned a thing or two about eclipses, gained a few great friends, and discovered an hour of the morning I never knew existed.
If you would like more information about this inspiring event, including video footage and links to the Second Life exhibit, feel free to visit the Exploratorium’s web site.