|January 31, 2003|
In virtual, student does 'what Olivier would have done'
Mike Pinch '03 with the 'real' thing: Olivier's model of intersecting cylinders
Web director Tom Smith wanted to put Union's priceless collection of Olivier models online.
Computer science major Mike Pinch wanted a senior project that tapped into his passion for creating virtual worlds.
So Pinch, advised by Prof. David Hannay and with support from Smith and Prof. Davide Cervone of mathematics, created virtual representations of some of the models that Olivier designed to illustrate the intersections of shapes and surfaces. He also created a virtual Nott Memorial in which to display them.
The result is an impressively detailed program that combines two of Union's most spectacular treasures. Users can "walk around" the detailed interior of the College's centerpiece building (complete with portrait of Eliphalet Nott) and manipulate four virtual Olivier models placed on the center of the floor.
The virtual exhibit and tour can be downloaded at http://www.union.edu/Olivier.
Pinch said he didn't start out with the idea of placing the models in a virtual Nott. But after discovering that he could produce a virtual model in a matter of days, much faster than he expected, he took on the larger challenge of constructing a virtual gallery. "I knew right away how to put it together," he said.
Mike Pinch's virtual Oliviers in a virtual Nott
With his notes from a vector calculus class he took freshman year ("If I had known it would be so much use to me I would have paid better attention," he admits), a handful of textbooks, and his developing skills in video simulation programming, Pinch set out on a project that consumed most of his waking hours during the last winter break.
He studied the models (through the glass cases) and wrote programs so the user could manipulate the intersecting geometric shapes the way that Olivier had intended. He also included photographs of the real models and text that identifies each one and describes the geometric principles it illustrates.
He took photographs of the encaustic tiles on the floor of the Nott, created the 16 dark green support columns, and even added the large portrait of Nott. As for artistic license, he used some medieval-looking carved wood doors instead of the real glass ones. And visitors can go through a wall to the "outside," where they can look back at a view of a mythical Nott suspended in a bubble.
The string models were invented in the mid-19th century by Theodore Olivier of the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris. Union Professor William Gillespie, who knew Olivier personally, purchased the models, which were acquired by the College after Gillespie's death in 1868. The College's collection of more than 50 models is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world. Some of the models are on display in the Science and Engineering Center and the F.W. Olin Center.
The models, highly regarded as both works of science and works of art, have been featured in articles in the scientific and mainstream press. A curator from the Smithsonian recently visited to inspect the models. Most of them were restored and cataloged in recent years by the late Prof. William Stone of mathematics, an effective advocate for publicizing the treasures.
But the Oliviers are fragile, and most people (including Pinch) have seen them only through glass. Cervone, who has become something of a caretaker for the models, said he finds Pinch's virtual versions "more true to the originals in that they can be manipulated. This is what Olivier would have done if he was around today."
Pinch, who also minors in math, is a graduate of McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, N.Y. At Union, he played center on the football team, served as president of Kappa Sigma fraternity, and studied on a term abroad in Scotland. He plans to pursue a career in computer simulation – widely used in video game and military applications – and he is considering a graduate program in the field.
"Mike showed a lot of initiative and he found the right tools to do this project," said Hannay. (Pinch used C++ and OpenGL.) Hannay noted that Pinch experienced the revelation of applying computer science theory to a real application, something many engineers don't get until after they graduate. "That's a common experience," said Hannay, "but it usually takes a little longer. I get notes from students who are five years out who say they are grateful for the theory course they took."
"Mike did a great job of re-creating the models and the Nott," said Smith. "I am thrilled to use this as part of our effort to showcase the Olivier models on-line. And best of all, there's no danger of breaking anything."