Roving Mars

So I finally saw Roving Mars, the Imax® film about the MER mission—those wee rovers on Mars that have currently enjoyed more than 1,000 sols (i.e., Martian days, which clock in about three percent longer than terrestrial days) of exploration on the Red Planet.

First off, the film tells its story brilliantly. From the human scientists to the anthropomorphized rovers, the characters play roles that win over the audience and keep the narrative moving. Furthermore, the movie manages to balance the engineering and the science, which has proven tricky in other documentaries I’ve seen, particularly when they came out early in the mission.

But what I find intriguing about the film is something that my coworker Carter Emmart mentioned right after he saw it—the incredibly blurred line between real and computer-generated imagery. Actual rover images segue seamlessly into animated shots, and it sometimes takes a moment (for an expert, if I may refer to myself thusly) to distinguish between the two. I even got into a discussion with a planetary geologist afterward about whether one of the scenes was computer-generated or shot on Earth!

This is more than a testament to software tools and technological acumen. It also raises questions about how audiences perceive science content. If we don’t let people know the source of the imagery we present, do they end up thinking more or less of the end product? I’d be curious to know when (or if) they perceive the shift from reality to animation. One would hope that people would recognize that no film crew followed the rocket into space and no aerial cameras exist to execute the fly-overs of the rovers on Mars, but… And conversely, do people realize how much even the computer-generated media is informed by the science? Does it matter?

In surveys conducted for the Cosmic Collisions show production at my home institution, we found that people placed great value on knowing that visuals were rooted in scientific visualization of real computational data—and they put even higher stock in imagery that came from spacecraft observations. Thus, an actual image of the Sun had greater cachet than a computer simulation, which in turn meant more to people than an artist’s rendition.

So is it important to make sure people know what they’re looking at? You certainly don’t want to disrupt the flow of the story, but Roving Mars chose, as most pieces do, not to address the issues at all. That makes me a little uncomfortable.

At the end of the day (or the sol), the film weaves an exciting, even touching narrative, and the detailed, highly accurate imagery serves the subject well. I certainly think that the richness of the data—of realism—infuses every frame of the film with greater impact than “mere artistry” could accomplish. When you look at the real stuff, you get a subliminal sense of the complexity that I think most people find satisfying.

Snake on a (Galactic) Plane

Still at my conference, I’m going to take the easy way out on today’s image. A nifty picture, indeed, although I’m inordinately fond of infrared images, and Spitzer (back when it was still SIRTF) paid for my summer employment back in college, so I might ba a tad biased.

I’m inordinately fond of puns as well, but… Yeesh! That title. On the phone just now, I confirmed that I know the person responsible for it, too. It’s a small astro-viz community out there.

Fading Echo

Attending a conference in Northern Indiana has proven a little distracting, particularly since I’ve decided to prepare my talk using the LaTeX Beamer class instead of PowerPoint. It produces some handsome PDFs, but climbing the learning curve is a tad painful…

At any rate, that explains my fall back to astronomy. Haste. So it’s just another lovely image today, released as part of a Hubble Space Telescope announcement from ESA. If you have a chance, take a look at even the moderately higher-resolution image available online. The loops and whorls visible in the image above (or at least its higer-resolution counterpart) appear much more distinct than similar features in earlier images of the object.

You see, V838 Monocerotis isn’t like most nebulae—Orion and the Eagle, for example, glow because the gas inside them is heated up and ionized—instead, V838 glows by reflected light. Dust around the central star has been illuminated by an event that took place several years ago, a little like a flash going off in a darkened room, except that it takes years for light to traverse the extent of the surrounding material (thus, to continue the darkened room analogy, you’d need to think of the far wall of the room illuminated long after chairs, tables, or whatever in the foreground would be revealed by the flash). An earlier Hubble announcement about the object reveals V838 growing over time, not because the cloud itself is expanding, but because it has been lit by a burst of light that continues to wash over the dust that enshrouds the central source.

The nickname for this is a “light echo,” suggesting the bouncing of sound off increasingly distant hilltops. Sadly, like an echo, V838 will continue to grow dimmer over time (the intensity of light, after all, falls off as the square of the distance), so we should enjoy the fabulous images while we can.

Periodic Spiral

The image above shows a version of the periodic table of the elements, visualized by Jeff Moran. I ripped the image from a PDF offered up on his website, which also links to a piece of software that uses the above image as a basis for exploring the periodic table—lots of information is given on each element, although you have to shell out $50.00 to get the fully functional version.

Moran’s software ain’t new, but for some reason, the New York Times chose to highlight it in today’s Science Times, along with other ways of arranging the elements to highlight relationships that the typical rectangular arrangement misses. (The article also references Edgar Longman’s “Chemical Galaxy” image, for which I have great fondness.)

What I love about these re-imaginings of the familiar (well, familiar to some) is that they make one look at things differently. I can’t claim to have mcuh of an intuitive sense of the structure of the periodic table, but what I understand, I see more clearly in these newer versions. And I feel compelled to note that what I do understand of the periodic table, I gleaned from P.W. Atkins’s brilliant Periodic Kingdom, which describes the familiar, rectangular table as a landscape of different attributes—binding energies, specific heats, and other such measurable quantities.

So… Take the Times’s lead and take aother look at the periodic table!

Stem Cell, Stem Cell, Burning Bright

Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School and Japan’s University of Tsukuba have announced the ability to tag hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) in living bone marrow—which means they managed to make the gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP) express itself only in HSCs and not in the surrounding cells. The glowing green blob in the image above represents a stem cell, all on its lonesome, in the midst of mouse bone (as opposed to mouse brains).

HSCs are the little folks responsible for forming blood cells and supporting the immune system, and they don’t survive too long outside of bone marrow, so it’s important to track their behavior where they’re most at home. The press release also links to a time-lapse QuickTime of the luminescent stem cell, although I should warn you that not much happens. The important thing to note is that the stem cell seems rather lonely; instead of hanging out with a bunch of pals, it (like the cheese) stands alone.

The technique of tagging cells with the gene for bioluminescence hasn’t been around too terribly long, but it provides a remarkably straightforward way of visualizing what’s happening at the cellular (or even sub-cellular) level. The image above gets the message across quite clearly.

Coincidentally, I recently picked up an impressive (and well-illustrated) tome that describes the development of bioluminescent tagging for use in research. Aglow in the Dark: The Revolutionary Science of Biofluorescence is written by two insiders in the field, who give an intimate introduction to the history of the topic, while providing truly enlightening (sorry) background to the scientific and technical challenges. Quite a fascinating little book.

Pulsed Oddity

Asleep at the virtual wheel, I somehow missed this week’s announcement of winners for the Second NRAO/AUI Radio Astronomy Image Contest. The above image represents one of the more puzzling choices for inclusion among the honorees.

I mean, Iike the idea of a conceptual graphic rather than the typical “pretty picture”: the image above tells a story, admirably but perhaps unclearly. Being only marginally acquainted with Shapiro delays, I correctly guessed that the abscissa represents time (the cartoon above the data plot helped), but what’s up with the ordinate? It’s a pulsar, so I’m guessing timing, but would it hurt to tell us?

Plus, the cartoon in the middle gets a little confusing. The ellipses suggest that we’re seeing the system from an oblique angle, but the third image from the left makes the beam of light (which feels as though it’s coming out of the plane of the image) appear to be in the plane of the orbits. That really threw me off.

Anyway, eight winners appear to have been selected from 13 entries. Not bad odds. I might have to enter next year…

And now I’m running late for a dinner. So I’ll sign off for now.

More Green in Greenland?

Okay, I have to admit: a) I’m squeezing by with a mere five minutes to spare in the day, and I feel a need to post to maintain something near an “everyday” quota and b) it’s another global warming thing, but in fact, I think this is pretty interesting.

People have been observing Greenland’s ice layer for some time, and measurements suggest that it’s receding. The interesting thing about the image above (aside from the fact that it inverts the normal bluer-equals-cooler depiction) is that it conforms with predictions about the growth (inland) and decline (coastal) of Greenland’s ice sheets. And—you guessed it—it’s consistent with global warming.

There’s a tricky borderline between data and computational results, but the image above displays the intersection between the two.

Better Living through Chemistry

Doctors attending the American College of Emergency Physicians recently announced a problem with a certain household cleaner: it looks good enough to drink. David A. Masneri, who conducted the study in question, commented, “When looking at a bottle of Fabuloso—especially the yellow Limon, green Fresco Aman, and blue Ocean Fresh varieties—anyone will easily see a resemblance to certain popular beverages.” According to the Texas Poison Center, 104 people ingested Fabuloso during the first four months of 2006; more 60% were under the age of six.

I’d describe my initial reaction as rather intrigued (which perhaps sounds a little callous, but there you have it). The idea that people respond to specific visual cues fits very well into my ideas about how we process imagery and how well-developed our sense of “visual language” really is. Basically, the shape and color of the above bottle says, “Drink me!” Even to the under-six crowd! That’s really kind of astonishing. (Similarly, my idea about how many science visualizatons fail to communicate their ideas well is that they often fail to remove the scientific vernacular embedded in imagery used to communicate between peers. Again, I have a PowerPoint online that describes my ideas about visualization (but you need to read the comments on each slide, or else you’re just looking at a bunch of pretty pictures).

Of course, then the really scary aspect of this sunk in… We humans are conditioning ourselves to drink brightly- and artificially-colored liquids! After generations growing up on Gatorade and Pepsi Blue, we don’t even hesitate to put this stuff up to our lips. I’m glad I stick to healthier natural beverages—beer, for example.

Hubble Déjà Vu

When in doubt, look for a Hubble image! I’ve been trying to post once a day, but that means I have to find an image of interest each and every single day, and well, sometimes it’s simplest to fall back on what I know best. And that means astronomy. And that means Hubble.

What’s a little odd about the above picture is that I know I’ve seen something similar from Hubble before (even though the new images come from the Advanced Camera for Surveys, I know, I know). But much in the same way that the last time I mentioned the Hubble it was reproducing images that had been released back in April, there’s just a sense of déjà vu going on here.

Anyway, the up shot is that better resolution reveals useful data about star clusters in the super crazy high-resolution images. Which is important to understand what happens when two galaxies collide—namely, scads of stars are born.


How can one resist clicking on something called a “ShakeMap”? The lovely, simple image above showed up on a quick search of United States Geological Survey (USGS) information about the recent earthquake in Hawai’i. I’m left curious about the little circles and triangles that dot the map—presumably they represent measurements of some sort, but I can find nothing to corroborate that hypothesis. Like any good netizen, I read the figure’s accompanying text, and although it told me quite a bit about the purpose of a “ShakeMap,” it didn’t reveal the purpose of the tiny icons. Furthermore, they seem to have shifted from when I looked at the map earlier in the day. Fascinating but opaque.

It’s also interesting to compare the “decorated” version with the “bare” version offered up on the site. The former includes a graphical scale in kilometers (nice enough) while the latter features latitude and longitude markings along the edges. A puzzlingly minute difference. But I find it heartening that both include some sense of scale! Seems like geologists are well ahead of planetary scientists on this count.