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Work of U. of I. 'Leonardo'
to be highlighted in Chicago Da Vinci exhibition
Mitchell, Arts Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Cox, a professor of art and design at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior research
scientist at the university’s National Center
for Supercomputing Applications, was invited by the
Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to contribute
to “Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius.”
— Scientific visualization artist-wizard Donna Cox is among a
select, eclectic group of visionaries from a broad range of disciplines
whose work will be spotlighted in a major new exhibition opening this
week at Chicago’s Museum of
Science and Industry.
Cox, a professor of art and design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior research
scientist at the university’s National
Center for Supercomputing Applications, was invited by the museum
to contribute to “Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius.”
The exhibition will be on view April 14 and runs through Sept. 4.
Designed to reveal the depth of Leonardo’s inventive spirit, the
exhibition showcases the ways in which his talent extended beyond purely
artistic endeavors into the fields of science and engineering. It also
emphasizes how that genius lives on today through “modern-day
Leonardos,” whose own work inspires new generations of dreamers,
creators and inventors.
Cox is among the “modern-day
Leonardos” identified by the museum and invited to contribute
models, prototypes, illustrations and other concept materials to serve
as a sampler of the work being explored by some of the most inventive,
creative minds of our time. Members of the group hail from fields as
diverse as architecture, art, music, computer science, engineering and
physics, medicine and music.
Cox’s part of show will consist of a kiosk with a large display
screen featuring a 13-15 minute audio-video
loop that stitches together several examples of the visualization
work created during the past 14 years by Cox and other members of NCSA’s
photo to enlarge
image is a visualization study of inbound traffic
measured in billions of bytes on the NSFNET T1 backbone
for the month of September 1991. The traffic volume
range is depicted from purple (0 byes) to white (100
billion bytes). It represents data collected by Merit
Team members include
Alex Betts, Jeff Carpenter, Matthew Hall, Lorne Leonard, Stuart Levy
and Robert Patterson. The museum presentation is edited by Carpenter,
with music produced by Patterson.
The content of the piece “is all data-driven, scientific visualizations,
aesthetically created,” said Cox, who added that her primary contribution
to the team’s work is to determine color and the style or visual
treatment of the rendering of the data.
Ever since she “crossed over” from the world of studio art
to supercomputers in the mid-1980s, trading paint and canvas for a mouse
and virtual-reality goggles, Cox has picked up numerous awards for her
work, which is intended primarily to help scientists visualize –
and more easily interpret – complex data. She also has created
visualizations for the IMAX film “Cosmic Voyage,” which
was nominated for an Academy Award; for documentaries broadcast on the
Discovery Channel and on PBS, as part of its “NOVA” series;
and for planetarium dome shows.
Cox’s most recent work includes serving as NCSA producer and art
director for “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity,”
a planetarium show that opened in February at the Denver Museum of Nature
& Science, and will travel to other venues around the world. The
show was produced in association with a “NOVA” series about
black holes, “Monster of the Milky Way,” scheduled for broadcast
this fall on PBS stations.
“It’s my passion to bring this esoteric science to large
audiences in meaningful and beautiful ways,” Cox said. “It’s
a pleasure working with other artists and scientists.”
The video sampler in the “Leonardo” show features visualizations
of two colliding galaxies and their merger in intergalactic space, the
birth and death of a first star in the universe and its transition into
a supernova, and a fast-paced segment simulating flight to the center
of the Milky Way and into a black hole.
Another segment illustrates for museum visitors just how the team of
artists and scientists work together and actually do what they do.
It includes footage and narration featuring Cox, Patterson, Stuart and
their avatars (animated characters that represent team members in the
U. of I.’s virtual-reality space known as the CAVE), and “shows
us flying around as avatars and sharing flight paths in virtual reality,”
“The Leonardo theme is a lot about flight,” Cox said, explaining
her rationale for choosing to incorporate these particular visualizations.
To advance the metaphor in a slightly different direction, Cox also
incorporated a classic 3-D model representing the emergence of the Internet
in 1990-92, with network “flight paths” criss-crossing a
map of the United States to indicate connections at research institutions,
national labs and client networks.
“This image has become an icon for the Internet,” Cox said.
Although it was created back in 1991, “it still gets about two
hits a week on the NCSA Web site and is constantly requested for print
Some of the other Modern-day Leonardos featured in the exhibition also
have U. of I. connections, including former faculty member Stephen Wolfram,
developer of Mathematica software and author of “A New Kind of
Science; aerospace engineer James DeLaurier, known for his research
and development of the ornithopter, an aircraft with bird-like, mechanical
flapping wings; and Zack Kaplan and Keith Schact, founders of Inventables,
a company that provides a subscription service of new technologies to
Fortune 500 companies.
“I was impressed with the other contributors,” Cox said.
Danny Hillis (inventor, engineer and computer scientist) … I’ve
known he’s brilliant for a long time. So to be there with people
like him, Wolfram and (multimedia artist) Laurie Anderson, it’s