In a dark room flooded with black water in Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art stands a central dais with two cabinets that glow from within. To the left lies the mummy of Pausiris, dating to 100BC. To the right, an animation peels away the casket and wrappings, revealing the skeleton of the man who lies within.
Hundreds of kilometres away at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, 500-million-year-old fossils are on display. They show the evolution of teeth, of limbs, of the alibility to breath air. They represent a time when fish were the most sophisticated life forms on Earth. Exact replicas of these fossils are standing by to be handled, scrutinized, and even sawn in half to reveal the complex internal structures.
These opportunities to explore in detail what was previously a mystery are thanks to software developed in Vizlab – part of the National Computational Infrastructure at the ANU Supercomputing Facility – by Dr Ajay Limaye, a mathematician-turned-software programmer who has developed a tool to visualise the unseeable.
Ten years ago, ANU developed a micro-CT that can scan specimens such as bone, rock, insects – anything that could fit. The process was non-destructive and specimens didn't require any special treatments. The possibilities appeared endless, except for the fact that there wasn't a software package capable of processing the large amount of data the machine produced.
In response, Limaye started to write his software, Drishti – a word meaning vision or insight in Sanskrit. The revolutionary tool is now being used in fields as diverse as oil and gas exploration, dentistry, art and palaeobiology.
"The software allows us to digitally remove the skin from an animal, and then colour each bodily system separately to clearly distinguish muscle from bone," says Limaye. After scanning artifacts that are millions of years old, we can intricately explore the internal components without damaging the original sample."
The images can be created in real time, meaning medical conditions can be diagnosed without the need for invasive surgery, geologists can map the internal structure of stone to identify if oil is present, and entomologists can get up close to some of the world's smallest insects.
Pairing Drishti with a 3D printer makes it possible for the images on the screen to become physical, tangible objects, says Limaye.
"Ancient fossils can be colour printed and handled without fear of damage. We scanned the skull of a nine-year-old child and printed the image from the software. Not only were the external features an exact replica, but the internal structures also printed, revealing teeth that were yet to break through gum, the makeup of sinuses and fusion lines on the internal walls of the skull."
Limaye created Drishti with a user-friendly interface so that users don't need to learn complex calculations, making it available to research institutions and museums around the world.
"One of the best ways to communicate research is through a visual output," says Limaye. "Once there's an image you can use to describe the research, it suddenly becomes much stronger and easier to grasp."