U.Va. Humanities Project Among Three to Benefit from Access to Federal Supercomputer Facilities

December 23, 2008

December 23, 2008 — A research project at the University of Virginia that aims to reconstruct ancient artifacts and architecture with the help of supercomputers is one of three beneficiaries of a new partnership between the U. S. Department of Energy and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The federal agencies have jointly created the Humanities High Performance Computing Program, a one-of-a-kind initiative that gives three teams of humanities researchers access to some of the world's most powerful supercomputers.

As part of this collaboration, the Energy Department's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., will dedicate a total of 1 million hours on its supercomputers and technical training to humanities experts.

The center's supercomputers will be employed as part of the High Performance Computing for Processing and Analysis of Digitized 3-D Models of Cultural Heritage project, led by David Koller, assistant director of U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

Over the past decade, Koller has traveled to numerous museums and cultural heritage sites around the world, taking three-dimensional scans of historical buildings and objects — recording details down to a quarter of a millimeter.

According to Koller, a 3-D scan of the Renaissance statue David, carved by Michelangelo, contains billions of raw data points. To convert this raw data into a finished 3-D model is extremely time consuming — and nearly impossible on a desktop computer.

Insufficient computing power has also limited Koller's ability to efficiently recreate large historical sites, like Roman ruins in Italy or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. He hopes to use the center's resources to digitally restore these sites in three-dimensional images for analysis.

Over the years, Koller has also digitally scanned thousands of fragments that chipped off ancient works of art, some dating back to the ancient Greek and Roman empires. Koller hopes to use National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center computers to put these broken works back together again like a digital 3-D jigsaw puzzle.

"The collaboration with NERSC opens a wealth of resources that is unprecedented in the humanities," Koller said. "For years, science reaped the benefits of using supercomputers to visualize complex concepts like combustion. Humanists, on the other hand, didn't realize that supercomputers could potentially meet their needs too, until NEH and DOE proposed this collaboration last year. … I am really excited to see what comes out of this partnership."

Participants were selected for the collaboration through a highly competitive peer review process led by the National Endowment for the Humanities' Office of Digital Humanities.

"A connection between the humanities and high-performance computing communities had never been formally established until this collaboration between DOE and NEH," said Katherine Yelick, division director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. "The partnership allows us to realize the full potential of supercomputers to help us gain a better understanding of our world and history."

The selected projects are currently getting up to speed with National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center systems and staff.

"Supercomputers have been a vital tool for science, contributing to numerous breakthroughs and discoveries," National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Bruce Cole said. "The endowment is pleased to partner with DOE to now make these resources and opportunities available to humanities scholars as well, and we look forward to seeing how the same technology can further their work."

Two other projects have been selected to participate in the program's inaugural run:

• The Perseus Digital Library Project, led by Gregory Crane of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., will use National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center systems to measure how the meanings of words in Latin and Greek have changed over their lifetimes, and compare classic Greek and Latin texts with literary works written in the past 2,000 years. Team members say the work will be similar to methods currently used to detect plagiarism. The technology will analyze the linguistic structure of classical texts and reveal modern pieces of literature, written or translated into English, which may have been influenced by the classics.
• The Visualizing Patterns in Databases of Cultural Images and Video project, led by Lev Manovich, director of the Software Studies Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, is not focused on working with a single data set. Instead, this project hopes to investigate the full potential of a concept he calls "cultural analytics" using different types of data including millions of images, paintings, professional photography, graphic design and user-generated photos; as well as tens of thousands of videos, feature films, animation, anime music videos and user-generated videos.

About the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities

The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is a research unit of the  University of Virginia. Its goal is to explore and develop information technology as a tool for scholarly humanities research. To that end, the institute provides fellows with consulting, technical support, applications development and networked publishing facilities, and also cultivates partnerships and participation in humanities computing initiatives with libraries, publishers, information technology companies, scholarly organizations and other groups residing at the intersection of computers and cultural heritage.

About the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center

The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center currently serves thousands of scientists at national laboratories and universities across the country researching problems in combustion, climate modeling, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology and other disciplines. Established in 1974, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center has long been a leader in providing systems, services and expertise to advance computational science throughout the Department of Energy research community. The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center is managed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the Energy Department. For information, visit www.nersc.gov.

About the National Endowment for the Humanities

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities. Its grants enrich classroom learning, create and preserve knowledge, and bring ideas to life through public television, radio, new technologies, museum exhibitions and programs in libraries and other community places. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available on the Internet at www.neh.gov.