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Simulation science

From the graceful S-curve of medieval sculptures of the Madonna to the soaring elegance of the St. Louis Arch, certain shapes are imprinted in our consciousness.  A particle's trajectory is one; the bending of a bough under the weight of snow, yet another.  Can these shapes be simulated in virtual reality environments?  And what makes them beautiful?

The technology of virtual reality derives from computer graphics which had origins in the interfaces to multi-body dynamics, computational fluid mechanics and deformation codes.  Then computer graphics became a discipline of its own.  Look, closely, however, and one sees an ancestral language: computational mechanicians discuss quadrilateral elements, nodes and meshing; while computer graphics researchers discuss triangles, points and tessellation.

Current efforts in simulation science now aim to endow virtual worlds with physics.  Physics based simulations can achieve the viscoelastic modeling of human skin, the flow of hair fibers, and the simulation of water or fire, by exploiting the power of heat transfer, dynamics and material science.

However, before we rush to model the world precisely, we must consider the mind's perception. Consider a bouncing ball in a virtual environment with a different gravity.  One's hand motion would have a different pattern to ensure a repetitious bounce.  Exit from such a world after a duration of time, and perhaps the St. Louis Arch may not be as pretty anymore.  Perhaps our sense of esthetics is tied to the physics of our world. 

Simulation science is opening a new door.  At this threshold will be the computer scientists who write the codes, mechanicians who develop the equations, cognitive scientists who study how the mind perceives phenomena and artists whose eyes see it best.