Chemical Senses



By Susan Brown

In the early 1970s, UC San Diego chemistry professor Kent Wilson saw promise in a few incoming students and hand-picked many of them straight out of high school to work in his laboratory. He dubbed them the “Senses Bureau.” This group of talented undergraduates focused on the multisensory use of computer visualization, sound and touch, as tools in research and education. In an era of room-sized computers programmed with punch cards, he would inspire them to create computer graphic films that took viewers on flights through biological molecules and the human brain. “This was in the very early days of computer graphics,” says Bud Tribble, Revelle ’75, an early member of the Senses Bureau. “A computer movie was a brand new idea.” Chemists were just beginning to work out the structures of complex molecules, like proteins, by building models with plastic balls on sticks. The Senses Bureau programmed computers to draw the molecules, then animated them.   Zooming through molecules might seem thrilling, but the process of creating the film could be tedious. The movies were assembled one frame at a time. The students would program the computer to draw a particular view of the molecule, which took minutes to render, then expose the film, advance it, and repeat. That first summer, Tribble, Bill Atkinson, Revelle ’74, and others made films of two proteins: myoglobin, the pigment that carries oxygen and iron within muscles, and another of lysozyme, an enzyme that rips open bacterial cells.  Then, Tribble recalled, Wilson said it was time to write a grant proposal—as undergraduates. They applied to a National Science Foundation (NSF) program for student-initiated projects with a proposal to use computer graphics to portray the chemistry around us, rather than within us.  

The Tainted Sky

In 1970, President Nixon had signed the Clean Air Act, and in response, Los Angeles deployed chemical sensors to measure levels of air pollution. By 1972, data from those stations became available on computer tape. The Senses Bureau used the information to map pollution levels across Los Angeles and created a movie that showed how they fluctuated over a 24-hour period. With funds from the NSF grant, they hired a few more students to join them, including Mike Zyda, Revelle ’76, Tom Webster and Tom Richard. Jef Raskin, a musician, visual artist and computer scientist who worked at UC San Diego, advised the production.

Zyda remembers seeing an ad in the student newspaper, Triton Times, for someone with film editing skills. Webster got a letter from Wilson inviting him to an interview. Richard remembers knowing nothing at all about computer graphics or filmmaking when he joined the group the summer after he graduated from high school.

“To do things that hadn’t been done before was incredibly exciting,” says Richard, a former student and now director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Pennsylvania State University. “It opened up my eyes to the possibility of this career and set me on a trajectory that continues to this day.”

Their film, The Tainted Sky, animates graphs showing how pollutants varied over the course of the day throughout Los Angeles County. The graphs resemble topological maps with “mountains” rising and falling as levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides peaked and subsided.  Some of the students ventured into field work, identifying sources of pollution in the shared air of San Diego and Tijuana while learning to work with public officials and navigating cultural and language differences. They also published reports in scientific journals, one published in Atmospheric Environment correlated air quality with census data on income and other socioeconomic measures.

“This was early work on environmental justice,” says Webster, one of the authors who has forged a career in the field and is now a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health. Atkinson and Tribble stayed on to make one more film—this time about the brain.

The Human Brain

Robert Livingston, a professor at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, had been slicing preserved human brains and photographing the surface after each cut to create films that revealed the structure. The Senses Bureau students took the idea a step further. They traced photographs of the sliced surface of a brain with a pen-like device that recorded the motion as coordinates in two dimensions. These tracings were stacked in the computer to construct a three-dimensional model that could be rendered from multiple angles, a novel view of the brain in a time before CT scans or MRI.  The resulting film sequence has a hallucinatory quality with vivid colors assigned to the different structures, spinning slowly to austere music composed by members of UC San Diego’s music department. The film, The Human Brain: A Dynamic View of its Structures and Organization, was widely used to educate medical students.

In 1979, Scientific American featured an image from the film on the cover of the September issue. By then, the original members had graduated, though the Senses Bureau continued in various guises for another three decades.  

In the late 1990s, the Senses Bureau created a virtual reality system, the Virtual Explorer, inspired by the film Fantastic Voyage. Instead of a quest to blast a blood clot, players traveled through the body while completing tasks designed to reveal the workings of the immune system.

Where Are They Now?

Mike Zyda
Bill Atkinson
Bud Tribble
Kent Wilson

One of the earliest members of the group, Zyda, went on to create virtual reality simulations to train forces for the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He now directs the University of Southern California’s Gamepipe Laboratory.

By coincidence, Atkinson and Tribble both ended up in graduate programs at the University of Washington—Atkinson to study neuroscience, and Tribble in the M.D., Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program. Raskin had also moved on, and after a series of adventures, joined Apple Computer. He quickly lured Atkinson to join him there, and along with Steve Jobs, they persuaded Tribble to take a leave of absence from his graduate studies to work at Apple. The three were part of the original team that created the Macintosh computer with the first graphical user interface intended for the masses.  Atkinson now pursues art photography. Tribble finished his graduate program and a medical residency before turning back to computers. After forays with NeXt and Sun Microsystems, he is now vice president of software technology at Apple. “It was such a unique thing for Kent to gather these undergraduates and give them such free reign over the laboratory resources,” says Tribble. “To me, that was just a huge part of my UC San Diego education.”

A renowned chemistry and biochemistry professor, Wilson was called one of the most innovative teachers at UC San Diego. For 30 years, he pioneered the use of visualization techniques to make science more accessible to students of all ages. As a researcher, he developed innovative laser techniques to probe the molecular dynamics of chemical reactions. As a mentor, he pursued a lifelong fascination with social dynamics, carefully combing through applications of incoming students each year to recruit the most promising combinations of talent for the Senses Bureau. Wilson died in March 2000.

Like those members who preceded them, the last grouping of the Senses Bureau published a final account of their project, the Virtual Explorer, in the journal, Presence, in December 2000. They have also gone on to exciting careers in sound engineering, television production, software development and climate modeling.

Susan Brown writes about the physical sciences for UC San Diego.