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* The primary objective of the Molecularium project and both films is to boost global science literacy and energize more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering, Schadler says. By carefully engineering the characters, plot, look, and feel of the film, the Molecularium team sought to create a movie where viewers would get swept up in the storyline and learn or re-learn a substantial portion of important science. And as any engineer or scientist would expect, the Molecularium team has hard data to back up their claims. When Riding Snowflakes was released, they tested groups of children, teenagers, and adults before and after watching the movie.

“Results of the tests were crystal clear: children had a fundamentally better understanding of atoms, molecules, and polymers coming out of the movie than they did going in,” Schadler says. “The teens and adults did better, too.”

From the very beginning of the project, Schadler says the team wanted to embed the film with three primary educational themes: the three states of matter, polymers, and the fact that everything is made out of atoms and molecules. Water was a natural fit to illustrate the first theme. Showing the Oxy, Hydro, Hydra, and other characters shrinking down and zooming into and out of different everyday objects such as a coin or a toy is a key story device for conveying the third message. The movie, it was decided, would also prominently feature polymer chains.

“Nanotoon helped realize the vision, by creating the characters of Oxy, Hydro, and Hydra who help Carbón in his search for life. This creative tool was perfect for showing the audience that everything, even life, is made up of individual atoms and molecules,” Schadler says. This “search for life” storyline is a major component of Molecules to the MAX.

While Molecularium hasn’t directly affected Schadler’s materials science and thin films research in her laboratory, it has certainly given her new tools to explain her research and other scientific concepts without the conversation turning overly complicated.

“Personally, working on Molecularium has really impacted my children and how I communicate with my children,” she says. “Now that they’ve seen the show, when they ask me a scientific question or a question about my research, I can explain it to them on a level that I couldn’t explain it to them before.”

Simulating the Nanoscale Universe

Molecules to the MAX, by all accounts, far outstrips its predecessor in terms of animation, sound, script, quality, and impact. But when watching the movie, it’s easy for viewers to overlook the fact that they’re witnessing some of the most complex scientific computations ever undertaken.

The background animations of atoms and molecules are derived from accurate, state-of-the-art theoretical molecular modeling simulations created in Garde’s laboratory. Creating this camera into the hidden nanoscale universe required simulations massive in both scale and complexity. For the new movie, it took up to five computer-processing hours to render a single frame in normal resolution—and each second of the new 40-minute IMAX movie is composed of 24 such frames. The resolution and frame rate for the forthcoming 3-D IMAX version of the film will be even higher.

“When you watch a modern animated movie like Shrek, and you see the fabric of the princess’s dress move, it looks quite natural because animators have taken great pains to make those movements as physically realistic as possible,” Garde says. “In Molecules to the MAX, we’ve tried to push that accuracy all the way down to the level of atoms and molecules.”

While Riding Snowflakes was also based on Garde’s simulations, the animators at Nanotoon were emboldened by the first film’s success and more ambitious with the IMAX film, Garde says. Nanotoon sought to further blur the distinction between art and science, and continued to request larger, more involved simulations to flesh out the atomic backgrounds of Molecules to the MAX.

“The artists didn’t want to fake anything,” Garde says. “They wanted as many simulations as possible. I’ve had at least 10 to 15 students over the past few years contribute to this project.”

Along with the challenge of running the simulations, and working with Nanotoon to build a common vocabulary that draws from both the world of computation and the animation, Garde says seeing his work on the large screen added new facets to his understanding and appreciation of the molecular world. “When you watch a molecular trajectory rendered on a large screen, you begin to notice intricacies and patterns that aren’t necessarily obvious when you’re looking at it on a small computer screen,” he says.

Garde submits that most of the animations that provide the basis for Molecules to the MAX were packed with “more information and detail than was probably necessary to make a given point.” But it’s these little details that will allow his colleagues around the world—mainly chemical engineers and physicists—to appreciate the movie on yet another level. “It’s almost like an inside joke,” Garde says. “Like the lines in Shrek or Toy Story that go over the heads of many of the young people, but make the adults laugh.”

Garde credits his research team, along with Siegel, Schadler, and Nanotoon, for helping to transform his field of study and its highly complex, arcane intricacies into such a fun, accessible, “stealth education” film. He also credits collaborator and Rensselaer colleague Professor Angel Garcia for help with some of the simulations of biological cells.

“If someone like me stands up to tell kids about molecules and atoms, it won’t be long before they fall asleep,” he says. “But Molecularium is an interesting place where molecular modeling, education, art, and entertainment all meet together in a very meaningful and exciting way. It’s a unique vehicle to tell the kind of story we’re trying to tell.

“My daughter is 2 years old, and right now she’s hooked on the cartoon Jungle Book. But I hope it won’t be long, as Molecularium grows, before she’s hooked on Oxy, Hydro, and Hydra.”Another major area of Radke’s research program involves medical image analysis, especially in the context of radiation therapy. Every time a patient undergoes a computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan, it results in a series of 3-D images. In preparation for administering radiation therapy, doctors scroll through these images, locate the afflicted organs, such as the prostate, and then circle the tumor in each slice. Radke has worked to automate this process by designing machine vision techniques for the same task, using organ models built from many expert outlines. The net time saved for each scan may only be a few seconds, but when multiplied by the tens of thousands of doctors who handle hundreds of these images every week, it becomes substantial.

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