Well-Behaved Sheep

I always wonder how people without a physics background perceive images such as the one above. It illustrates an ellipse of cobalt atoms (the series of peaks encircling the colorful, rippled interior) enclosing electrons (basically the ripples). So much symbolic language is built into this illustration that I can’t imagine it communicating much of anything to an audience not steeped in the visual parlance of physics. The cartesian plane representing the substrate on which the cobalt atoms are placed, the color-coded quantity in arbitrary units, the unexplained labels “F1”and “F2” right in the middle of everything… What does all this say to the non-specialist?

The image caption describes the enclosed electrons as “behav[ing] like standing waves in a pond.” So if uninitiated readers can wrap their heads around the idea that electrons (which they probably imagine as little particles) behave like waves, then the description might mean something to them.

That description is a far sight better than the press release from the Max Planck Society, which claims that “randomly vapour-deposited atoms arrange themselves in regular structures within the circular fencing – as if they were sheep arranging themselves neatly in a pen.” Now, I didn’t grow up on a farm or anything, but sheep don’t strike me as the most self-organized critters. I mean, if you pack any roughly regularly-shaped objects tightly enough, you often end up with patterns, but that’s not what they’re talking about here. The analogy falls short.

In short, the image above neatly illustrates a problem I touch on in my “What Is Viz?” PowerPoint, namely the challenge of a well-developed visual language getting in the way of communicating. Graphic elements that make sense when presenting data to one’s peers can prove insurmountable to a wider audience unacquainted with the (often complex) grammar and vocabulary of such a visual language.

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