Origins of Hubble 3D

The star stuff behind Hubble 3D


Written by Paul Hellard

Donna J. Cox has long been on the cutting edge of jaw-dropping visualizations as Director of the Advanced Vizualization Lab (AVL) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), where she and her team have created visualizations for museums, exhibits and even feature films. Through her work, Cox has seen Scientific Vizualisation as not just something that inspires awe but also has great educational and research utility.

Donna J. Cox is also Professor at University of Illinois’ School of Art and Design, College of Fine and Applied Arts.  It was wonderful to speak with her in Brisbane during the SIGGRAPH Asia conference in November last year.


“The NCSA AVL works with domain scientists and our artists and technologists receive massive supercomputer simulation or observed datasets,” explains Cox. “We create data readers and translate the scientific datasets to then work within Houdini.”  This is where the previsualization work begins with the internal NCSA software PartiView, part of the toolkit to construct the most spectacular and physically correct views of the phenomenon.

The NCSA AVL crew produces many visual presentations that visualize not only the vastness of space but the history of the universe, all the way down to the molecular creation of sugar energies from solar radiation.  The creative technology crew begins with people like Bob Patterson, AJ Christensen, Kalina Borkiewicz, Stuart Levy, and Jeff Carpenter each one having produced sequences of phenomenal quality and value.

The talented AVL team designs immersive journeys through the data with another custom camera choreography software called Virtual Director.  These productions are designed to be shown on either TV, played in 2D or 3D cinema presentations, or indeed like ‘Visualizing Birth of Planet Earth’, as fully immersive experiences in FullDome Theatres.

I ask Donna Cox what she loves about her work.   “I love working with discoverers and scientists and thought leaders,” she says. “And I like to bring science, in an exciting cinematic way, to the public.  I think we live in the kind of a world which needs more of this kind of education and engagement, and that’s why we target sometimes, legislators and tell them the story of science.  I also believe that truth is just as fascinating as fiction.”


Professor Cox collaborated for many years with Klaus Schulten at the University of Illinois, who dedicated his life to work on such revealing presentations as the ‘Photosynthesis in a Chromatophore’.  This full-dome screen creation illustrates the chain of processes transforming solar energy into molecules of ATP – the universal currency of life on Earth, with which bacteria, can feed, move and reproduce.

While she and her team were working with him on ‘The Birth of Planet Earth’ production, Klaus Schulten unexpectedly passed away.  But Donna Cox emphasises how Schulten was so happy to finally get his work out to the public, so he saw it as a win-win situation, despite his demise.  “There’s been a lot of hidden science, which we can bring to the public through cinema,” explains Cox.  “We can bring this to a larger population of interested viewers, for them to understand and enjoy.”


Donna Cox was awarded the ACM SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art at the Los Angeles SIGGRAPH Conference in July 2019.  “This is one of the greatest honours and I am very appreciative of my AVL team, NCSA, and the University who have helped make this possible,” said Cox.

“I’ve been participating in the SIGGRAPH Conference since 1984 and watched it grow to over 35,000 attendees at one point. SIGGRAPH represents the premier conference for the international community of interdisciplinary researchers using computer graphics,” continued Cox. “I am especially honoured because the SIGGRAPH represents my ‘tribe’ in the field and includes important mentors, students, and academic colleagues throughout my life.”



“The only way this kind of ground-breaking work can even begin is when there is enough money to do it properly.  Not even two months after Donald Trump took over the Presidency of the USA, funding agencies like NASA shifted priorities and resulted in educational changes. A wide range of funding sources has been reallocated or cut.  There is still a changing of language as well. You cannot utter the words ‘global warming’ in certain circles.” Cox qualifies this by saying she is stepping back in time here, where there were more restrictions.  “But of course, this is not the first time it’s happened.  It happened in the Bush administration as well. But we have persisted because these are important facts that people need to know about. This is why it was such a great moment when the National Geospatial Agency agreed to work with us and open up their data for scientific research.”

“So when we are thinking about today’s world, where things are going a little bit crazy, it is really important to keep our eye on the ball for what we’re trying to do here, which is to educate the public, and to make the world a better place, and to bring an understanding to this data.”

That’s what Donna Cox spoke about in her SIGGRAPH Asia keynote in Brisbane this November just gone, that as a purpose in life over her long career, she employed computer graphics and interactive techniques in the process of bringing understanding about phenomena, and using those tools to bring that knowledge into the world.   “I don’t care if its climate change data, or superstorms data,” Cox implores, “at one point the government was trying to reduce geoscience research because they misunderstood what that division did.  We helped to educate that geoscience included much more than Climate Change.  It includes predicting tornadoes, weather, and even solar storms.  This was an educational process.”


The problem says Cox, is that there is this polarisation.  There are students and interested people who read science, find it fascinating and entertaining, but then there are those who do not. “There are some people believing fake news and they’re not going to the source of information. But it’s not their fault.  “This comes down to people just not having an education in critical thinking and research,” she says. “It’s karma from a long time ago.  It’s been evolving.  So, the more we can reach out and educate the public, the more we are helping to correct the problem.”


As a director and one who oversees projects from a height, Donna Cox still likes to ‘get her hands dirty’. She is thrilled to talk about her passion for design and projects that are forthcoming.  “In ‘Solar Superstorms’, I got in there and helped create colour maps,” says Cox. “I’m a designer with a colourist background.  And as a designer, I help define the problem and work on the solutions. As a digital painter, I love to use colour to bring out information.”  In the ‘Solar Superstorms’ film, Cox got her hands dirty in the sequence where the plasma hits the upper atmosphere of Earth. To visualize this, they take the scientific simulation data of the event, painting the effect with relevant shades of colour that correctly show the extent of the actual event.



“Working with the director of Hubble 3D, Toni Myers, was an amazing experience and so powerful. Hubble 3D takes people on a journey from Earth to the star nursery in the Orion nebula.  AVL used Hubble data and provided the audience with virtual tours through intergalactic space as never seen before.”

“Toni had a vision from the time she was 12 years old,” says Cox.  “She saw many things in her mind and she was passionate in her drive to share that vision with people.”  Toni Myers worked with John Lennon and Yoko Ono as their videographer for a time, then then became an IMAX filmmaker under the direction of the founder of the IMAX.

“It was her idea to create ‘Blue Planet’ IMAX film, to let people see like an astronaut.” As amazing as that was, twenty years later, Myers directed ‘A Beautiful Planet’ IMAX film.  She really wanted people to see the changes going on with the planet, and many astronauts supported her on this.  There was some push back by those who funded the work, not wanting to fund an environmental film.

Digital cameras on the International Space Station for the production recorded the darkness of North Korea at night, the widespread fracking fires in Texas, and many other impacts of humans on the planet.



The importance of maps is not lost on Cox, as a central pillar to our place not just on the ground but in our universe. “The perceptions of ourselves as humans comes primarily from how we see ourselves, where we are in relation to other points in our universe,” she says. “Therein lies the importance of maps.  Maps serve many purposes, help us locate ourselves, and the artificial political boundaries we have lined up around ourselves. When humans want to know their real place in the bigger universe, this question becomes existentialist and completely compelling.  Knowledge is forever better than the not-knowing.  People have to read.  You have to study the humanities. You have to know where the source of your information comes from.  That’s how you do the research,” she stresses.

But as an artist/producer, Cox says she needs to be the one keeping the train on the track.  She needs to be staying on message.  To make sure the story is factually correct and those additions all move the story forward; instead of being on the canvas at most times.   “I have to be there answering the questions about what we are trying to communicate here, who is our audience, what is the timeline.  How is the effort on this one-shot helping to tell the story, and not just making it all a little prettier?”

Donna Cox has worked with the key collaborators for well over thirty years, and the students she brings in after they have proven themselves are generally those who get to work with the AVL team at the NCSA.  But how does she find them?

“The members of the AVL crew are so talented and they communicate well,” Cox begins.  “They are a lot of great talent.  AJ [Christensen] jumped into Hubble3D straight out of university.  We are doing something that is very powerful.  Technology is fun to a point but the impact of the story is most important.  Pulling everything together to help the world understand complexity.

The internal NCSA software PartiView is used to construct the most spectacular and physically correct views of the phenomenon.  PartiView is available as a batch of open-source applications called Digital Universe, ready to download and use.   Check these out.

At the end of my interview with Prof Donna J. Cox, I handed her one of my new business cards, which has an image from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey on the back.  She loved it, as do I, and pointed out that this production was one of the most successful articles of the popularisation of science through media.  A surprising fact she said was that the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL, was ‘born’ in Urbana Illinois. And when her university got the Cray supercomputer at the beginning of NCSA in 1985, they used to call it HAL.  “NCSA even had Arthur C. Clarke piped in from Sri Lanka to be part of the opening ceremony,” she adds.

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 5.26.16 pm
The NCSA AVL team (l-r): Jeff Carpenter, Donna Cox, Robert Patterson, Kalina Borkiewicz, Stuart Levy, AJ Christensen

Related links:



University of Illinois, Urbana – Data Visualisation course on Coursera


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