Computer artists transform equations into dramatic simulations at the Ilinois Supercomputer Center.

On a hot day in Illinois, a storm is brewing. Above cornfields and a dusty road, a cloud dramatically billows and grows. To the experienced eye of veteran meteorologist Robert Wilhelmson, the gathering tempest looks like a potential tornado.

But don't run for the storm cellar. The cloud is only 12 inches high and the sky is just the deep blue background of a computer screen. The whole scene exists only as an elaborate series of equations and numbers that Wilhelmson has fed into a Cray supercomputer at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputer Applications.

Once there was a starlet startup called Digital Productions. Formed in Hollywood in the wake of an early 1980s entertainment industry love affair with supercomputer graphics, Digital was one of half a dozen companies that flourished, then failed, as movie-makers belatedly...

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