Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why Visualization

  I can remember the first program I ever wrote when I was about 11 or 12. It solved a physics problem from one of my father's books: m=m0(1-v²/c²)½The program produced a lot of numbers for v and m, but this table of numbers did not provide any great insights. So I decided to graph them. Seeing the the curve of m running to infinity rapidly as v gets close to c immediately gave me a deeper understanding of what the equation really means.

  A few years later in my first real job – the same thing but on a bigger scale. Doing computational physics at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. This code produced massive sets of numbers, and once again, simply looking at the numbers was not the best way to digest the data. So we graphed them. Of course we checked the numbers to ensure that the calculations were correct, but the real understanding came from the visualizations. And all of the publications and presentations used the visualizations.

 A few more years later and I was visiting the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and I saw a large screen displaying an interactive three dimensional model of a molecule. I can remember having the flash – wow this would be great for teaching. I knew immediately that many of the advanced mathematics and physics concepts I had struggled with would be understood much clearer much faster if quality visualizations were available.

  Now, graphics capability which was once the exclusive province of large institutions can be carried in your hand. We have a strong focus on STEM education, we have the Internet as a distribution medium, and we even have a graphics API embedded in most browsers. It is a great time to bring together all of this knowledge and experience with the desire to make a difference and build first class visualizations targeted to instruction.