My protoplanetary disk in Blender3D

A protoplanetary disk is, in my opinion, a stupid word that means something very sweet … it just means a solar system in its infancy, when it’s still a baby, still developing. But instead of just calling it a “baby solar system” or, to be more regal, an “infant solar system”, they had to christen it with an ugly, long, totally unnecessary name. It makes it sound like a super foreign, enormously complex idea: what else could a protoplanetary disk be, if not something that you can only understand if you spend many years getting a PhD? Really, it’s a pretty straightforward, though! It’s an infant solar system. But the people getting their PhDs in this have to pretend that their research is sooooo complicated and would go over all your heads, and therefore … we’re stuck with a “protoplanetary disk”.

I should make one more note: I said a protoplanetary disk is “sweet”. It’s sweet because it’s a baby in a sense. But they’re not actually all that sweet. They’re like violent places full of collisions.

Any case, I made one in Blender 3D. This right here was the image I tried to mimic. And this is what mine ended up looking like:

protoplanetary disk0062

Isn’t it nice??!! You can see it spinning in animated form here.

The spinning might be a little fast.

I made this 3D model on my own. I mean, there’s not tutorial out there titled, “How to build a protoplanetary disk in Blender”. So I had to skulk around in several different tutorials and get tips from each to figure out how I was going to do this. One of the few times I’ve completely improvised my Blender work when it comes to a more complicated object. Makes me proud when I experiment and do this. One tutorial in particular that got me started on some ideas was this one on making clouds.

Once I got the basic shape, this is what it looked like:

protoplanetary draft 1

It’s got the concentric circles, but it’s a bit too solid.

So I changed the material a bit, tried to make it transparent, and …

protoplanetary draft 2

This made the disk look a little more insubstantial, which is what I wanted. On the other hand, it made it look like there was a stump in the middle. There was actually no stump there, but this particular material, combined with the light source, produced the aspect of one.

So I finally just cut out some of the vertices in the center of the disk. And also, I changed the way I was setting up the light source. At first, I had set up a sun lamp right over the disk, and let it shine down onto the center. But once I carved out the hole in the disk, I got rid of the sun lamp; added an icosphere in the gap left by the hole; gave it an emission shader; and then amped up the strength a whole bunch.

So again, it ended up looking like this:

protoplanetary disk0062
Protoplanetary disk built in Blender 3D.

This is how I got there:


First, this is what the model looks like in Blender: you can see both the disk and the “sun” in the center.

protoplanetary model


The disk is just a plane, extruded upwards a bit, with several modifiers on it. Here you see all of them:

protoplanetary modifiers

I added a subsurface modifier between all the others not because I knew what I was doing, but because I saw someone do that in a tutorial. So it seemed like an impressive thing to do.

Here’s what the parameters of the wave modifier look like:

protoplanetary wave

Here is the Displace modifier parameters, along with the linked texture:

And finally the Simple deform modifier. This one was super fun! I tried out the Bend, Twist, Taper, and Stretch options, each in its turn, and it was so cool to see the results.

protoplanetary simple deform


Like I said, I added an icosphere to put in the middle of the disk, and then this is the material I assigned it. Simple and straightforward: an emission shader, a yellow color, and a high strength of 100. I deleted all the other lights.

protoplanetary lighting

Disk material

The material to color the disk did not end up so complicated at all. Here are the nodes:

protoplanetary material

World material

For the world material, I used a background image:

protoplanetary world material

The background image I used is located in the description provided for this YouTube tutorial. That particular YouTube tutorial is what I used to make the first animation in this Twitter thread.

Animate the disk

To make the disk spin, there’s two things you need to do.

  1. First, go to the wave modifier and make sure the speed is set to 0. Otherwise, the disk will spin all by itself, and no matter if I turned the speed up or down, it was rotating way too fast.
  2. Now you can manually animate the disk by adding keyframes. Save the position at the beginning of the animation, and then go forwards on the timeline, spin the disk however much you want (press R-shift-z; the shift-z will make sure the “R” for rotate doesn’t cause the disk to wobble up and down), and then keyframe the new position.

And that’s it! My approach to making a protoplanetary disk in Blender.

Scicomm made polished, part 3

I finished a new animated Twitter thread for work. This one is on planet collisions. Woah!

You can see it here. It’s nine tweets in all.

I wrote about getting feedback on  my animated Twitter threads earlier. I was sad because I was told about how bad and unpolished my work was.

Well, after all my whining and complaining, I did the teacher’s pet, good-girl act of “let me learn from my mistakes” and “take the feedback to heart”. I decided to act all mature and pretend I was happy to be told I sucked. While making the new Twitter thread on planet collisions, I paid attention to the backgrounds and colors I was using. I worked on it for a month, and tweeted it out last Thursday. It was in fact my last act at work before becoming a Coronavirus refugee.

protoplanetary disk0062
This is supposed to represent a solar system in its infancy.

Then I sent this new thread to one of the people who had given me feedback. What do you think now? And in a very cutesy, inspiring turn of events (thankfully), I was told: this looks great! Big improvement! Nice job!

Isn’t that nice?

Further: that the colors and similarities in style between the different animations makes it much more evident that they all go together. That they have a relationship to each other through the color choices or the dark background.

lava flow0071
Lava flow.

You know what, though, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate my own work. I, for example, thought there should be something distinctively consistent in the background for each animation — something I wasn’t able to ensure. But upon receiving my feedback, that was when it first dawned on me that just the simple consistency of a dark background in each animation was enough — nothing fancier than that. So I still have a lot to learn, but it’s definitely nice to receive praise, and I think if I iterate this cycle of experimentation on my part, and feedback from others, I learn little nuggets of insight at a time.

As always, I use Blender3D to make these animations.

Construct3D: Making animations with real-life puppets

I saw a really cool talk the other day. It was the keynote on the opening night of the Construct3D conference. The speaker was Brian McLean from a movie company called Laika. They are in Portland, Oregon.

Now, I’d never heard of that company before, but they’ve won some Oscars, and been nominated for more. So I got to meet and talk to a person who has an Oscar. Pretty cool.

This company makes stop-motion animation. I didn’t know what this was until when I saw “Chicken Run”, the movie. Actually, I watched the movie a few times, and later on someone told me it was made through stop-motion animation, and explained what that meant. That you’re not creating characters on a computer program. But instead you have actual little clay figures. And you can move and bend them. And every time in the movie when anything moves at all, it means that they stopped the camera, had someone lean into the hand-made scenery where all the characters are perched, and move the characters’ hand or eyebrow or a tree branch by hand.

This process sounded so spine-chillingly and nerve-upendingly time-consuming and long that at first I was sure I had misheard, but that’s exactly how it works!

Any case, I have never watched any of the 5 films that Laika has made, but I’ve heard of some of them at least. The one I had heard of was Coraline. Now that I’ve met one of the people involved in making them, I’m going to try to watch it.

With Laika, they don’t make their little character puppets using clay or ceramics. Instead, they 3D print their characters — at least, they 3D print their characters’ faces. And since at every moment in a movie when a character is on camera they want the character’s face to have an expression perfectly suited for that moment, they end up printing tens of thousands of faces. And then these faces can be snapped onto the character’s head.

Indeed, this takes a long time! The speaker told us it takes them 4 to 5 years to make a movie. But, it’s apparently not as expensive as 3D computer animation. He said that it cost Pixar something like $150 million to make Toy Story, while LAIKA spent $60 million on their last movie, The Missing Link. I’d like to watch that one, too.

But, then when it comes time to release the movies in the theatre, not a lot of people go watch them. I know the feeling! So they don’t actually make all their money back. Instead, they are bankrolled by the son of the founder or head of Nike!

The speaker had brought some of the actual movie puppets with him … and some of the snappable, 3D printed faces. It was super cool.

Real puppets and 3D-printed faces from LAIKA
Brian McLean from LAIKA and his puppets

My poster at Construct3D

There’s a “makerspace” conference that’s been around for 3 years now. It started first back in 2017. This year, it was held at Rice, and I got to go to it. I presented a poster at it. It’s called Construct3D.

The Makerspace is where you have cool things like laser cutters and 3D printers and paints and sewing machines, and a wood shop, and iron smelting (or some sort of metal work). I love it all!

Here was my poster: what do you think? I’m trying to develop a lesson for my work at Rice that involves laser-cut blocks.

construct3D poster draft 3
My poster at Construct3D

Of course, during the poster session, I was as usual left standing forlornly by my poster to which hardly anyone walked up, I was just all alone.

This was also the most intense poster session I was ever part of. Standing by your poster, and having little chats with passers-by, wasn’t the main feature. Instead, they had all of us poster-people go stand in the center of the big room; and then they had a guy with a microphone; and then we had to give a minute-long speech about our poster in front of everyone else at the conference. Each had our own turn. Well, I introduced my poster, and apparently I flunked the ordeal, cause no one wanted to come talk to me later.

But the conference was so cool! I learned and saw and heard and thought. The speakers were amazing. I’m going to write a post about three of them for my next pieces.

Here’s some pictures from my Makerspace times back in Chapel Hill:

Other stuff I made in the Makerspace:

My first lesson in the Makerspace. We were on the sewing machines. We made a little pouch 🙂


A lovely view from one of the science libraries in Chapel Hill. I’ll bet these were made in the Makerspace.


An open house at the Makerspace. The kids were delighted. They’re looking down into the laser cutter, cutting away. I used that machine a lot!
Some of the stickers I made with the vinyl cutter!


A card I made from laser-cut shapes and words.

And finally, I don’t think have a picture of it, but I went to a Makerspace workshop in Chapel Hill where we soldered some metal and light bulbs and sticks, and we made a Harry Potter “lumos” wand! I didn’t even know what it meant to solder before that!

Texture vs Point in Blender materials

I discovered a new, tiny detail in Blender3D. It’s a tiny thing that made a big difference.

I was trying to make etches onto a cube with an image — like engrave the image in.

I wanted it to look like this:


See, nice and clear! However, it was just looking like this:


Much less crisp and sharp, and when I went to print it out (the images were for a poster) it didn’t show up hardly at all.

Almost by accident, I discovered what the problem was. Below are two material settings, one for the ‘good’ image and the other for the muddled one:

material texturematerial point

Yes! The only difference was that for one image, the ‘Mapping’ node in the Materials was set to ‘Texture’ (the bad image) and on the other it was set to ‘Point’. And it made all that difference. Amazing, and so, so easy to miss.

Scicomm made polished, part 2

I was bemoaning the apparent lack of polish in my science animations and not quite understanding all the criticisms, but now it’s a few days later, and something has dawned on me.

I remember now reading people’s blogs, and them saying all all their photos are put through pre-sets in Lightroom. Meaning every photo gets a “finish” on it, or something, and it’s the exact same finish for each photo, and that finish will mute the colors all in the same way; or get the brightness of the photo to look the same; or maybe some other stuff, too. So then when you see photos from that person all together, they all have that same sheen to them, so you kind of can tell they came from the same place.

Honestly, does this not also make it boring? So every photo kind of looks the same, one to the next. But if you don’t do this, then your photos look incoherent?

Well, I’m going to try something: for my next animated Twitter thread, I will choose a color palette carefully and stick to those colors throughout the whole thread. And I’ll see if that helps with the “polish” and the “coherence.”

How to make scicomm look polished

They say you should be open to feedback, and of course, of course, yes, yes. But ugh, I so hate being told that something I’ve done isn’t “polished”. I hate hate hate that.

So I met with a designer yesterday, and I showed her this latest Twitter thread I made for work. And yes, after all that work, my animations in the thread weren’t polished, weren’t cohesive. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

So this is the thread… it’s about the crust, mantle, and core of the Earth. Yeah, I think it’s boring, too, but I tried to make it interesting.

So the problems start at the beginning: here is a still from the first animation …

earth xray

… and apparently this is all wrong, wrong, wrong, because the very next animation looked like this:

crust mantle core

And this is all terrible because for both animations, apparently the font I used is not very readable. And because the background for one is a blue gradient and for the second it’s a basic black, it’s not coherent. And then in the first animation, the girl is 2D but the Earth next to her is 3D, and in the second animation the Earth is also 3D, and apparently this is also very disturbing!!

And the first animation also broke all the rules because that square that says “No access” should not have been bigger than the Earth it was covering. The corners should have been inside the Earth. And the black edge is too thick.

I don’t know why. I can’t see it myself that the black edge is too thick and that the corners should have been tucked inside the Earth. But apparently these are the rules you get taught in design school.

And then I was told that people are so used to very slick and polished videos these days, so it’s of utmost importance that all the work looks nice and clean. Aaaaaaaaaaah. I nearly sank into the floor.

I don’t know all these design rules, but I will try two things: I will look for a font that is more “readable” and I will make the backgrounds look the same in all my little animations.

Somehow, I am supposed to get all my animations for a thread looking coherent and put-together like all the photos on this cat-lover Instagram look.

Yes, I do see that those pictures look coherent and pulled together … but I don’t know exactly how to get there myself!!!