Photograph by Ben Horton
Photograph courtesy Calit2, Erik Jepsen
Albert Yu-Min Lin’s explorations are groundbreaking, because they never break ground. He uses noninvasive computer based technologies to gather, synthesize, and visualize data without disturbing a blade of grass.
“Exploration has always been about going where we haven’t been able to go before,” Lin notes. “Environmental, cultural, or political obstacles may have prevented us from exploring certain places. Today technology helps us navigate past those old barriers.” For Lin, cutting-edge tools such as satellite imagery, ground-penetrating radar, and remote sensors permit him to make archaeological discoveries while respecting the traditional beliefs of indigenous people.
“It’s all about using technologies in ways they weren’t originally intended,” explains Lin. “We can apply tools that were created for entirely different fields to search for something else—in my case, archaeological artifacts. I’m building on the foundational work of many pioneers.”
Today Lin and other researchers from a cross section of fields have at their fingertips a veritable high-tech toy store. It’s called the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). Created by the University of California to foster interdisciplinary collaboration, it allows Lin to access an unparalleled array of digital 3-D immersive technologies and then link his efforts to those of other scientists.
A case in point is Lin’s search for the tomb of Genghis Khan, a quest that has eluded scientists and historians for centuries. Many Mongolians consider the tomb an extremely sacred place and believe any desecration of it could trigger a curse that would end the world.
“Using traditional archeological methods would be disrespectful to believers," Lin says. "The ability to explore in a noninvasive way lets us try to solve this ancient secret without overstepping cultural barriers. It also allows us to empower Mongolian researchers with tools they might not have access to otherwise. Today’s world still benefits from Genghis Kahn’s ability to connect East with West. He forged international relations that have never been broken. By locating his tomb, we hope to emphasize how important it is for the world to protect such cultural heritage treasures.”
Lin’s passion for exploring and preserving “our collective cultural heritage” was inspired by his last ten adventurous summers spent trekking solo through Pakistan, Cambodia, China, Tibet, Mongolia, and other remote regions.
Still eager for time in the field, Lin investigates sites with a high-tech tool kit that leverages photographs taken firsthand on the ground, images gathered from satellites and unmanned aircraft, GPS tracks from expeditions, and geophysical instruments. “There are many ways to look under the ground without having to touch it,” he observes. Thermal-imaging systems show what lies below by detecting heat signals and patterns emitted from the Earth. Magnetometry uses the Earth’s magnetic field to pinpoint subterranean clues as microscopic as bacteria in decaying wood. Ground-penetrating radar bounces back images revealing subsurface objects or disturbances. Tiny remote wireless sensors collect data from places no human can go.
“These new approaches could benefit all kinds of projects, from gaining a whole new view of regions like Mongolia to tracking animal migrations to mapping the brain,” notes Lin. “The real trick is synthesizing the vast amounts of information we collect into something that can be understood. My colleagues and I use visualization techniques to sort, relate, and cross-link billions of individual data bits. We program it all into a file that allows us to re-render it into a digital 3-D world.”
To enter that world, open the door to the Star Cave.
The Star Cave is a totally immersive virtual reality room that lets scientists and historians navigate, fly, and manipulate their way through landscapes. Backlit screens project images on the ground, walls, and on every surface of the enclosure, while special eyewear creates the 3-D effect. Virtual explorers zoom over mountains, down slopes—and yes, Lin admits, “it’s really fun.” (The sensation proved so potentially dizzying, handrails had to be installed.)
“If a mountain is described in an old text, I can go into the room and travel around that region to see if it actually exists.” Lin says. If the technology data trail leads him to Genghis Khan’s tomb, he can then rebuild each tiny point of information into a huge virtual matrix, designing a virtual recreation of the discovery.
“Society tells us we each have one single path we can walk. But I’ve always been interested both in the science and the humanities. My family encouraged me to follow all those dreams, and that’s exactly what the work I explore now lets me do.”
Pondering the power of new technologies, Lin offers, “Exploration is part of it, but another big aspect is conservation. In many ways technology has created problems for our planet. One of the greatest things we can do is better use these tools to actually give back to the planet—preserving wildlife, cultures, history, and habitats. I think we have to decide why progress is important. Is it just to become faster, better human computers—or to become more human?”
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