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Interviewees: Dick Siegel and Shekhar Garde
Tiny Atoms, Big Screen
If you’ve ever wanted to talk to a nitrogen atom, or sing-a-long with a water molecule, then ‘Molecules to the Max’ is for you. The upcoming IMAX film lets you experience the subatomic world up close. But it also takes you where no scientist has gone before.
"This is a very exciting turning point, for science visualization, and education, that really has not been available before," says Dick Siegel.
Siegel is the film’s executive producer, as well as the director of the Nanotechnology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY . He, along with fellow producers and RPI researchers Linda Schadler and Shekhar Garde, began developing the film three years ago. It’s the second in their ‘Molecularium’ series of films, following in the footsteps of their planetarium show ‘Riding Snowflakes,’ which was released in 2005. Siegel and his colleagues say the films are primarily a vehicle for teaching children (and adults) basics physics concepts.
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But kids aren’t the only ones learning something new from this film. Producer and Chemical Engineer Shekhar Garde says that while designing the scientifically accurate molecular environments for ‘Molecules to the Max’, the film’s artists and animators pushed his team to their limits, and beyond.
"The artists, without knowing the scale of the challenges, really, they simply started pushing us,” says Garde. “And would say, ‘Hey, I need a system with 150,000 water molecules, with a protein sitting in there,’ or something like that. And you know, we said ‘Wow, you know, that’s difficult, but we can do that’”.
Garde’s work had previously involved simulating interactions among a relatively small number of molecules. But he’s now taking the techniques used to create the film’s massive molecular environments and putting them to work in his own lab. Where before, he and his team restricted themselves to simulating a few hundred molecules in a system, now they are working with hundreds of thousands. It’s an interesting example of entertainment advancing science.
But what he’s learned in making the film isn’t limited to the practical aspects of visualizing molecules. Garde also believes that working on ‘Molecules to the Max’ gave the RPI researchers new insight into the nanoscale world they’ve been working in for so long. Instead of merely imagining the kinds of large-scale molecular interactions that occur in their research, Garde and his colleagues can see how different atoms and molecules bond together, and how that affects the rest of the molecular system as a whole, giving them a better idea of the ‘big picture’.
“This project gave us the opportunity to actually insert ourselves into the molecular world," says Garde.
And aside from the film, the researchers hope to turn their immersive simulations into interactive learning tools for students, or even drug company researchers.
About the Film
‘Molecules to the Max’ tells the story of Oxy, the oxygen atom, and her mission to take the ‘Molecularium’ spaceship to the planet Earth and discover the secret of life. Along the way, she meets precocious hydrogen atoms, friendly carbon atoms, and discovers a whole host of subatomic environments, from the upper atmosphere to the inside of a penny.
In the end, Sigel says he wants the film “to help children of all ages, really — from kindergarteners and below, to adults — understand better the world around them, and to learn, but to learn in a non-threatening, entertaining way."
The film was funded largely by the National Science Foundation, and a private donation from RPI alumnus Curtis Prium. It’s tentatively set to open in February of 2009.
Elsewhere on the Web:
Nanotechnology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
National Science Foundation
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