Thin orange and blue lines swirl above a surface of colored cones, outlining a hollow cylinder. Suddenly a cluster of red dots gathers in the middle of the cylinder, spinning around furiously and gathering force with each rotation.
The image is abstract, but striking: The red dots, we soon learn, represent a T3 tornado (tornadoes are rated between T1, or "Light Tornadoes," to T10 "Super Tornadoes"); the lines, airflow geometry in and around it. The cones represent wind speed and direction at the ground. The hour-long process of a storm's formation has been depicted in just over a minute. (Click here to see a video of the simulated storm.)
Aided by advances in computer graphics and animation, scientific visualization has grown increasingly sophisticated over the past five years. Forget about those tinker-toy-like atom models from high school chemistry. Nowadays, complex computer-generated images of cell structure and anatomy are used to teach medicine, and computer animations can model everything from melting polar icecaps to protein synthesis. What was once a very traditional field is in the throes of a digital revolution.
It's a booming market, too. According to Machover Associates, a White Plains, N.Y., computer graphics consultancy, the worldwide market for scientific visualization in both two and three dimensions is expected to grow from $10.7 billion in 2005 to $17.2 billion in 2010. Most of the money is going into 3-D imaging, according to Machover, and although the majority of it will come from private industry, a substantial amount of federal research funding will be channeled toward that area as well.
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