Imagine an accident in which a nuclear power plant releases radioactive gas. The cloud starts moving with the wind. Clearly, the authorities will want to evacuate anyone in its path, but what is that path? Local wind information is meaningless without information about terrain; a mountain range or series of valleys can divert both wind and gas in unpredictable directions.

  To make “downwind” a useful term, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have put the United States on a computer, the entire United States—every hill, every valley, every mile of seashore. Within minutes of a disaster, they can give meteorologists a context for weather data, and thus the ability to predict how toxic gases might spread.

  The database for this computer map is a series of altitude measurements, made over many years by the Defense Department and the U.S. Geological Survey. They represent the height above sea level of over a billion separate points—a grid of points 200 feet apart, spanning the country. Armed with these data, plus a program that manipulates them, a Cray-1 computer can produce an image of any piece of terrain, seen from any angle, illuminated by an imaginary sun at any time of day placing the “observer” at any altitude from zero to 40,000 feet.

  “We use a technique called ray tracing,” says Patrick Weidhaas, one of the Livermore computer scientists who wrote the program. The computer is told where the observer is. The program traces an imaginary ray from there outward until it “intersects” with one of the points of altitude recorded in the machine’s memory. The computer then puts a dot of color at the proper place on the screen, and the program traces another ray.

  At its highest resolution of 2,000 horizontal and 1,700 vertical dots per picture, the computer has to trace several million rays, Even on the Cray, the most powerful computer in the world, this takes about a minute. Reducing the resolution to 400-800 (a TV screen has 800×700) speeds it up to about eight seconds. “We can’t produce a movie simulating flight on the screen in real time,” says Weidhaas. There is a way around the problem: Two movies have been made using still pictures generated by the computer as individual frames. “The results were impressive,” he says, “but it was cumbersome to do. At twenty-four frames per second, it takes fourteen hundred separate computer images to make a one-minute film.” Another limitation: The computer can access only enough memory to cove a 15-mile-square area. An “observer” high up will see blank spaces beyond those limits.

  Weidhaas wants to add information about what overlies the terrain—cities, vegetation, roads, and so on. “Making the image as realistic as possible will make our advice more effective,” he says, “and might lead to uses we haven’t thought of yet.”

  26. As used in the first paragraph, thrrain most clearly means _______.

  A. available information about the weather

  B. surrounding land area

  C. blank spaces between the mountain ranges

  D. amount of forest per square mile

  27. Livermore’s computer map, in combination with weather reports, might be useful in predicting _____.

  A. the path of toxic gases from a nuclear power plant explosion

  B. where incoming nuclear missiles might strike

  C. the average annual rainfall for North Dakota

  D. the amount of pollution in the air

  28. The information used by the computer to make its detailed maps _______.

  I. was gathered by the Defense Department and the U.S. Geological Survey

  II. shows points roughly 200 feet apart

  III. involves altitude measurements

  A. I 

  B. I and II 

  C. I and III 

  D. I, II and III

  29. Which of the following is the best description of ray tracing?

  A. The computer simulates rays of the sun, filling in areas of light and shadow.

  B. Lines radiate outward from the imagined observer and a dot of color is placed where the line intersects with one of the points of altitude in the machine’s memory.

  C. X-rays are used to trace the outline of the terrain through buildings and trees.

  D. The exact movement of rays is used by private detectives to solve mysteries and locate missing persons.

  30. Information about cities, vegetation, and road overlying the terrain ______.

  A. has to be eliminated before correct readings can be obtained

  B. would be impossible to convert to data that a computer would accept.

  C. might lead to new applications and improve effectiveness of present uses

  D. would make ray tracing obsolete