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 High-Definition Science

NCSA hosts Science Bulletins, the AMNH's HDTV science show for museums

The first high-definition television science show aimed at museums, the American Museum of Natural History's (AMNH) Science Bulletins, broadcasts to museums and NASA visitor centers each day with a little help from NCSA.

Science Bulletins is a 12-minute HDTV program that focuses on biodiversity, and Earth sciences and astrophysics. It is produced by a 12-person team at AMNH, funded in part by NASA, and hosted on two Sun Microsystem servers at NCSA. The production team has traveled from the South Pole to Alaska documenting the work of scientists in the field. The videos that result from all this travel are broadcast at a resolution that is six times higher than standard video.

Shows are uploaded from AMNH to NCSA each night using the Abilene backbone network. The compressed MPEG2 HDTV files are about 1.5 gigabytes (GB) in size. Museums and other institutions that subscribe to Science Bulletins log on to the servers at NCSA and download the latest program. Most do so at night, since the downloads can take a long time. Most subscribers present the show on plasma screens or HDTV projection systems as part of an interactive science display or theatre presentation.

"We simply didn't have the needed bandwidth to offer the show to our subscribers," said Smokey Forester, distribution manager for Science Bulletins at the ANMH. "We needed a good Internet backbone connection and we went to NCSA for assistance because of our good working relationship with the center."

Donna Cox, head of NCSA's Experimental Technologies division, Robert Patterson, NCSA visualization programmer, and Stuart Levy, NCSA senior research programmer, helped create two digital space shows for the AMNH's Hayden Planetarium. The shows feature visualizations created by renowned astronomers, cosmologists, and astrophysicists, many of whom work with the NCSA or the Alliance and use NCSA computing systems. Both space shows contain simulations that were integrated into the film as animations using NCSA's Virtual Director software.

"Hosting Science Bulletins was a way to get involved with a very technically sophisticated outreach effort," Cox explained. "The quality of the HDTV broadcast is better than anything most of us have ever seen, and the quality of the science being presented is top-notch, since it is coming from AMNH." Some of the Science Bulletins broadcasts have featured NCSA-produced animations taken from the digital space shows, and NCSA's new HDTV production facility means the center now has the technology to produce future content for Science Bulletins, Cox added.

Science Bulletins currently broadcasts at five NASA visitor centers, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and at museums in Richmond, VA, Raleigh, NC, Knoxville, TN, Augusta, GA, St. Louis, and Parker, CO. A low-resolution Web archive of the shows, which include in-depth textual information, is available at

Forester said he is constantly visiting museums to spread the word about Science Bulletins, and as more museums become capable of using HDTV technology, he expects more to sign on to the service.

"It's a little like planting a garden," he said. "Because of tight budgets, there's always a delay between showing them what we have to offer and getting a new subscriber. But this is something that museums want. They want to be more current, but it is hard to keep displays current these days. Scientific discoveries just come too fast."

That fast pace of scientific discovery was a reason for launching Science Bulletins, Forester added. In late 2000, AMNH completed a major construction project that resulted in three new museum areas: the Hall of Biodiversity, the Hall of Planet Earth (Earth Sciences) and the Hall of the Universe (astrophysics), which includes the new Hayden Planetarium. Updating display areas at a major museum is expensive, and AMNH officials wanted a way to keep the new halls as current as possible.

"With Science Bulletins, we shoot current science all over the world as it happens," said Forester. "It's a way to get something about new discoveries into the halls."

Access Online | Posted 3-11-2003