Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 19 News List

To infinity and beyond

Professor Andrew Hamilton's goal is both simple and mind-bendingly paradoxical: to visualize what cannot be seen

By Kirk Johnson  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DENVER, COLORADO

The region of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Scientists say the black hole makes a mess as it eats stellar matter.

PHOTO: AP

Video game technology and Einstein's work on relativity may at first seem as unlikely a couple as Oscar and Felix.

One bobs in the froth of commercial culture, dodging the scornful radar of educators and parents who wish students were off doing something else like, say, studying Einstein. The other is as highbrow as science gets in its lofty waltz of theoretical physics, where time and space warp in otherworldly ways that have given brain aches to generations of physics students.

But to Andrew Hamilton, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado, they are perfect together.

What game programs do with increasing speed, sophistication and computational muscle, Hamilton said, is visualize things that have never been seen in the real world. And what Einstein described, especially in his theory of general relativity, are forces of time and space literally outside the real world we know, or can know.

"What if you could take people through a wormhole the way Einstein's equations said it would be?" he said in interview in his office on the Boulder campus. "And what if you could bring art and science together in a way that compromised neither?"

That is where black holes come in. Hamilton's marriage of video game software and relativity, which he has fashioned into a "Black Hole Flight Simulator," is at the heart of a new show at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science that takes viewers on a 23-minute thrill ride to what the program notes call "the other side of infinity."

The show is built on the crunching of numbers that even a black hole might envy: Some segments produced by the National Center for Super-computing Applications at the University of Illinois required 90 hours of supercomputer calculation for each second on screen.

The central goal, Hamilton said, is both simple and mind-bendingly paradoxical: to visualize what cannot be seen.

Because not even light can escape the gravitational pull of a black hole, the interior of a hole is perhaps the ultimate terra incognita. The absence of light coming out means an absence of all information. Most of what science knows about these objects is thus entirely inferential -- from gravitational effects on other objects like nearby stars.

The simulator, to be featured this year in a "Nova" program on PBS about black holes, seeks to lift the veil. Using Einstein's equations and a graphics language called Open GL, developed by Silicon Graphics, Hamilton told the computer to show how individual vectors of light should behave at the no-man's frontier of the black hole, called the event horizon, and inside the hole itself.

That meant not only creating a visual representation of Einstein's work, but also in a real sense creating from scratch a world that cannot be known. "When I started this, I had no idea what would emerge from the equations," Hamilton said. Part of the thrill was the exploration. The computer would go where the human mind by itself could not.

That the study of black holes could make for a popular planetarium show is a fairly new frontier. Not too many years ago, black holes were thought to be fairly rare, freaks of the cosmos that were born just under extreme circumstances.

A ho-hum star like the sun, for example, has no chance at black hole celebrity. It may flame out and explode at the end of its life billions of years from now, but it will shrivel only back to a point of declasse afterlife as a dwarf star.

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