'Vizzers' collaborate with A&M scientist, fellow Ags

"Enlightening Lightning!" planetarium show aims at introducing youngsters to science

A subject of myth and marvel, fear and fascination, lightning has forever captured the imaginations of all who’ve witnessed its ferocious beauty. And though centuries of scientific endeavor have largely dispelled myths and misconceptions about lightning, knowledge has only enhanced the wonder and reverence thunderstorms command.

It is this awe-inspiring effect, “the wow-factor,” one scientist said, that makes lightning a perfect topic for turning kids on to science. And it was that same savvy grant-writing scientist who determined that the Texas A&M University System had a unique, award-winning recipe to sate the National Science Foundation’s appetite for inciting scientific curiosity.

Drawing from a fortuitous combination of maroon-blooded talent and A&M System resources that included the planetarium at Tarleton State University and the Visualization Laboratory at A&M’s College of Architecture, Jean Ann Bowman, a research scientist with the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, penned a proposal for an NSF educational grant to produce a fun-filled planetarium show dubbed “Enlightening Lightning!”

Bowman’s successful bid drew $179,000 to fund a multidisciplinary, multi-campus collaboration teaming planetarium and the “Viz Lab” specialists with scientists from A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences and the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma.

The diverse team is now busy creating an informative and entertaining 40-minute planetarium show using lightning to introduce junior high students to the wonders of earth science, and perhaps in the process, spark interests in scientific careers. But since the subject is lightning, the project has another very significant aim — safety.

“If the kids walk away with anything, it should be how to save their lives in a thunderstorm,” said Richard Orville, interim head of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M, a nationally renowned authority on lightning, and the project’s principal investigator. “If I had to put it in succinctly, I would say it’s about lightning safety, or how to behave when caught in a thunderstorm.”

The fact is lightning can be quite deadly. According to statistics compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, between 1959 and 1990, an average of 93 deaths and 257 injuries were attributed to lightning each year.

To tackle the NSF-funded project, tasks were divvied among the disparate players. Orville and his colleague, Ted Mansell, a research scientist with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, were charged with developing the scientific portion of the program. Former Texas A&M students, Michael Hibbs, director of the Tarleton Science Planetarium, and Larry Barr, the assistant planetarium director, were responsible for guiding the project team through the highly specialized world of planetarium show production. The actual nuts-and-bolts portion of the project — developing the script, filming, animating and assembling the visual elements of the planetarium show — was assigned to graduate visualization science students Sarah Fowler, Luke Carnevale and Jeff Alcantara. Together they worked under the direction of Donald House, a professor of architecture and Viz Lab instructor who specializes in computer graphics, 3-D modeling and simulation.

Completing the team, not counting the film crew and troupe of actors who starred in the video portion of the show, are two more former A&M students, Victor Van Scoit, a visualization sciences graduate student, who honed the script, and Rebecca Miller, a meteorologist from NBC affiliate Channel 5 in Dallas/Fort Worth. Miller, who also teaches television meteorology at Texas A&M, narrates portions of the show and appears in the video segment as a TV weatherwoman.

“The thing that has impressed me is how people from such diverse backgrounds can cooperate to produce something which will be very beneficial to the public,” Orville said of the group who knew little, if anything, about one another prior to the two-year project.

The storyline follows a family of four on a picnic that is interrupted by a thunderstorm. As they huddle against the storm they talk about lightning and the somewhat bumbling dad asserts several misguided opinions and old wife’s tales about lightning that are dispelled or clarified throughout the presentation.

Miller shares the instructional segments of the presentation with an animated electron, “Sparky,” that was created by Carnevale.

“Sparky is an electron that lives up in the clouds and jumps from molecule family to molecule family trying to find the one he belongs to,” explained Fowler of the show’s comic relief. “Sparky was stripped off of his molecule by a charge in the cloud and he’s trying to get home.”

“He’s kind of the quirky, funny little science guy,” House added. “He explains a lot of the science.”

In addition to “learning a lot about lightning,” the visualization team is discovering the unique challenges involved in producing a multi-media planetarium show.

“The whole concept of a planetarium show is that you have to develop it in a way that the audience feels totally immersed. Everything is projected on a dome that completely surrounds them,” Hibbs explained. “It is much different than a movie. The audience sits underneath the dome and things are going on all around them so they feel like a part of the show.”

Other components of the show’s multi-media experience include Alcantara’s vector-based animations — stars, cloud formations, rain, lightning and even Ben Franklin’s kite — beamed from the planetarium’s digital star projector, and seamless 160-degree full-dome slide projections featuring a sampling of Orville’s extensive collection of lightning photographs.

The planetarium project is breaking new ground for A&M’s visualization laboratory, which has earned a reputation for producing technically savvy digital artists and animators who are sought after by Hollywood’s elite special effects and animation studios. And according to Hibbs, the presentation — with its daytime setting, extensive use of videography and animated character, Sparky — is extremely innovative and quite extraordinary for a planetarium show.

“Working with the visualization lab and the meteorology department has been absolutely fantastic,” said Hibbs, who will soon be receiving the project from the Viz Lab to begin final production and what he called “choreography” of the multi-media presentation. If all goes according to plan, he said, “Enlightening Lightning!” will begin dazzling future scientists in August 2004. But still eight-months away from the show’s premiere, Hibbs has his eyes on the next collaboration with his Aggie teammates.

“Next time,” he said, “we’ll do tornadoes.”

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