Death Stories: Slice, Conclusion

Thomas Cole: Subsiding Waters of the Deluge

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The waters return with constant motion from the lowest depths of the sea to the utmost height of the mountains, not obeying the nature of heavier bodies.
Leonardo da Vinci

“Some day this man’s going to walk away,” Spitzer said.  Having looked at all the equipment, we were sitting in the reception area of the Center for Human Simulation, where a computer screen greets visitors with the invitation to browse in the bodies of the Visible Humans.  On the couch, for no apparent reason, sat an incongruously primitive cloth dummy wearing a baseball cap that advertised one of the Center’s corporate sponsors.  Spitzer was talking about the problems of introducing motion to the digitized cadavers.  The army wants the virtual flesh to interact properly with bullets; surgeons want blood to flow from it convincingly.  Fluid dynamics is an extraordinarily complex field, as Leonardo knew; he returned to the problems of flow throughout his life, and in the end decided the world would die by flood.

The waters of the sea will rise above the high peaks of the mountains towards heaven and fall again on to the dwellings of men. (That is, in Clouds.)

Spitzer’s view is more optimistic.  “There’s a bigger pay-off than saving your life,” he said.  “Entertainment.”  He posited that the movies will solve the problems of virtual bullets and blood before scientists ever get around to it.  Special effects companies have already used the data set to lend verisimilitude to their animations in commercials and short sequences in a few films (the Bruce Willis science fiction picture Fifth Dimension, for example).  In theory, they could eventually use it to replace human actors.

Which brought Spitzer to an uncomfortable issue.  If the virtual bodies can be used for realistic simulations of action, they could be used for pornography.  I squirmed at the memory of my early adventure with Jernigan’s testicle.

The pornography question came up in the planning stages of the Project.  The scientists at the University of Colorado and the NLM realized they couldn’t control the way public-domain materials would be used, but they did want to preserve the donors’ anonymity.  There seemed to be no way of doing so short of literally cutting off their faces.  As it turned out, the scientists settled for simply not releasing names.  Reporters quickly deduced Jernigan’s identity when Spitzer revealed that the Visible Human Male had been executed in Texas.  He regrets being so specific.  The rest of the world may know the virtual cadaver as Paul Jernigan, but Spitzer never calls him by name.

Leonardo: Deluge over a City



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