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Astronomers, publishers and computing experts claimed a "significant milestone" in the New Year's Day edition of heavyweight boffinry journal Nature, saying it is "the first time a major scientific journal has used a 3-D PDF of graphics in an article".

The 3D pdf format, which can be displayed by any computer with up-to-date Adobe Reader software installed, was used to present a "dendrogram" illustrating the role of gravitation in the formation of stars within mighty interstellar gas clouds.

The dendrogram star-formation work was led by Alyssa Goodman, astronomy prof at Harvard and founder of the Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC). According to Goodman, use of 3D computing imaging tech developed at the IIC offered new insights into "reams" of existing astronomical data previously collected on the L1448 region of Perseus. The software had previously been used for medical purposes such as analysing MRI scans.

Prof Goodman said that the 3D images allowed better understanding of the gas cloud's nature and structure.

“There’s no way of noticing this without being able to see this in 3-D,” Goodman said.

Naturally enough, we had a go - you can grab your own 3D stellar gas-plasm dendrogram here (pdf). (You need Adobe Reader 8.1.2 or later for it to work properly, downloadable here if you haven't got it.) We recommend selecting "Full Screen Multimedia" from the right-click menu.

We think most reasonably well-informed readers will find their understanding of interstellar gas-cloud structure massively enhanced from its previous level, just as ours was - if not quite up to the level where we'd get an article published in Nature on the strength of it.

The conversion from the IIC's hefty boffinry-ware to everyday 3D pdf was done by Kiwi firm Right Hemisphere, who reckon tri-di publishing will be the wave of the future.

“We see the use of 3-D in publishing by Harvard and Nature magazine to be a significant milestone in publishing history," said Right Hemisphere honcho Mark Thomas, sounding a death knell no doubt for publications like this one still struggling to get to grips with 2D graphics.

That said, there may yet be a place for more basic technologies such as PlayMobilVision or even text in the ordinary media - and for extremely hard sums in such august publications as Nature. Down-under startup upstarts take note. ®

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