Doctor Octopus

As the holidays approach, my comments get more insipid. But I saw the image above as part of a Johns Hopkins press release about using a “snake-like robot” for minute medical procedures. Perhaps this is just a continuation of the previously-referenced “tactilizing” work, but I was rather charmed by the picture.

Of course, I am a bit of a comic-book freak. And even though Spider-Man was never a favorite, the association with Doc Ock at least enhances the kewlness factor.

What the heck are the little colored things it’s picking up, though?

Zoom in the New Year

The Hubble Space Telescope released the image above as part of a “Celestial Season’s Greetings” release. Nice enough picture, and although I’m unclear on the seasonal part, I find it interesting that Hubble site has joined in the zoomify style of presenting images.

I ran across “The Big Picture” site at Caltech this week as well, although I think it’s been around for a while.

An interesting, new, albeit content-less way of interacting with the imagery.

CG Takes Flight

A press release from Brown University describes the evolution of structures required for flight. Turns out that a specific ligament (labeled “AHL” in the above image) provides stabilization to maintain a gliding posture in pigeons—computer modeling permitted the calculation of the necessary forces and also resulted in a pretty spiffy image to illustrate the findings. It actually took me a moment to see the symmetry in the image, but as soon as I “read” the pigeon’s beak pointing to the right, it snapped into place. Nice work.

The caption for the above reads, entertainingly enough, “Using computer modeling, treadmills and the fossil record, researchers have shown that the acrocoracohumeral ligament (AHL), a short band of tissue that connects the humerus to the shoulder joint in birds, was a critical element in the evolution of flight.” The treadmills, BTW, came into play when alligators (close but obviously flightless relatives of the birds) were x-rayed while walking; researchers found that muscles, not ligaments, supported the shoulder. The fossil record seems to indicate that the ligament structures evolved gradually.

Also, it’s worth noting that the image is credited to the researcher himself, David Baier, who seems to have recently gotten his Ph.D. It’s great to see imagery coming directly from the person doing the work. The Brown University Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Newsletter from May 2004 describes some related work and makes mention of Baier.

Fungi Card Catalog

The image above accompanies a press release from Berkeley about research being done with a vast collection of fungi. Matteo Garbelotto (the fellow in the picture) is sifting through 28,000 samples housed at the Venice Museum of Natural History to create a database of fungal DNA.

I have previously belittled the use of scientist-at-work images, but I quite like this one, in large part because it represents an aspect of the scientific endeavor that doesn’t occur to most people. The sheer scope of this kind of collections-based research is familiar around the halls of my home institution, but I don’t think it occurs to the majority of people how much drudgery goes into a lot of research. And how, sometimes, you just have to flip through things the good old-fashioned way.

That said, it would have been nice to complement the images with a high-tech DNA something-or-other, just to illustrate the contrast between 19th-century card catalogs of fungi and 21st-century methods of analysis.

I also have to note, admitting my typical ignorance of most science biological, that I had no idea of the role played by fungi until I read Michael Pollan’s brilliant Omnivore’s Dilemma. As the Wikipedia article on fungi notes, “Fungi often have important symbiotic relationships with other organisms. Mycorrhizal symbiosis between plants and fungi is particularly important; over 90% of all plant species engage in some kind of mycorrhizal relationship with fungi and are dependent upon this relationship for survival.” Holy toadstool, Batman!

Radar on Mars

The above image comes from an ESA press release about radar imaging of subsurface structures on Mars. Basically, the top two “radargrams” somehow map onto the (very colorful) martian surface images below. On the one hand, I can understand why the writers of the press release might be loath to go into detail about the technique employed in going from the top image to the bottom, but I also wonder what people think when they see images like the rainbow-colored pair.

I mean, I look at the superimposed dark radar image and the superimposed dotted white lines—and they don’t even seem to coincide! The image doesn’t support the message.

In a case such as this, it strikes me as potentially helpful to show an image of a simplified situation. Show me the geometry of a crater, perhaps as a cutaway, then show me what an idealized radargram of that would look like. Put in context with actual data, such a cartoon often clarifies an otherwise confusing situation.

Cycling on Water

Images like the one above would captivate me as a child. Better even than some Richard Scarry book, they offered a chance to escape into a single-image story that quite often related to the real world (or universe) around me. I specifically remember water-cycle images as utterly entrancing.

I came across the above in a NASA press release on changes in freshwater distribution, which has some other interesting images that I’ll get to in a moment. But the diagram showing the water cycle usually has lots of arrows in it, kind of like the one associated with the Wikipedia article on the topic. But this one goes for a more organic style, replete with numerous labels (e.g., “soil heterogeneity”) but only a few, sparsely distributed arrows. I’m not sure I feel the connections as well as I’d like.

Of course, nowadays, one also has animations to illustrate the process, such as the 44.0MB epic (oddly entitled “EnergyUncomp640.mpg”), also linked to by the press release. In the animation, we see elements of the water cycle played out in sequence—cleverly coincident with the day-night cycle, beginning at dawn with evaporation and ending at night with clouds disappearing stage right. Again, no arrows. I wonder if the temporal element obscures the underlying process… In other words, does the beginning-to-end sequencing of a cycle not do justice to its cyclicity?

Nitpicks, but… I’m curious.

Both the animation and a high-resolution version of the above show up on GSFC’s excellent “Water Cycle” site, which offers much more detail on the processes involved and pays special attention to the human role in the environment.

But back to the aforementioned press release. It also shows diagrams of data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), which appear along the right-hand side of the web page (too tricky to reproduce here, since they show up as either uselessly tiny or overly large images on the site). One thing I like about the two images is that they use the same color scale (i.e., a given color represents the same quantity in both images); unfortunately, the color bar is unlabelled, so we have no idea what the units are, or really, what quantity we’re talking about at all. What annoys me, however, is that the sorry old crimson-to-violet color bar rears its ugly head, so we have a rainbow of colors with no logical change represented by, say, the shift from warm colors to cool colors (if there is such a meaning, it’s not described in the captions or in the text of the press release).

So, for example, if we have a map of the United States like the one shown in the press release, I’d want to know that the red regions represent, say, areas with decreasing water resources whereas green regions represent increasing freshwater availability. The color bar wouldn’t have to be labelled with units, but including words that describe what the colors mean would be nice—certainly better than numbers devoid of any context.

The GRACE website also includes a truly bizarre visualization of Earth’s gravitational anomolies. I, um, really don’t know quite what to say. Perhaps I should sleep on it…

What a Drag

Recently, commenting on images seems to mean complaining about captions. How sad. But here I go again…

The image above accompanies a press release on a three percent reduction in upper-atmosphere density by the year 2017. The caption for the image reads simply, “The outermost layer of the atmosphere will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade.” Which is all well and good (I mean, the caption is all well and good), except that it leaves one wondering what the satellite is doing in the image. Perhaps the caption could be expanded slightly to read, “The outermost layer of the atmosphere, which extends as high as some satellite orbits, will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade.” Just as a first pass.

A little later in the press release, we find out that “lower density in the thermosphere, which is the highest layer of the atmosphere, would reduce the drag on satellites in low Earth orbit, allowing them to stay airborne longer.” Well, golly, that makes an even better caption: “The outermost layer of the atmosphere will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade, allowing satellites to stay aloft longer.” (Somehow, “airborne” seems inappropriate when applied to a satellite.)

And while I’m discussing language instead of images, what’s up with the headline for this press release? “Scientists Predict Carbon Dioxide Emissions Will Reduce Density of Earth’s Outermost Atmosphere by 2017.” Um, well, actually, emissions have already reduced the density, and they will most likely continue to reduce the denisty long after 2017. Somewhat deceptive.

Pencil versus CAD

A Monday-afternoon lamentation on seeing ESO’s press release on the European Extremely Large Telescope. I noticed the above computer-generated rendering of the telescope, and I reflected back on my recent trip to Pasadena, where my coworkers and I wandered along the corridors of the Caltech astronomy department admiring the drawings of Russell W. Porter, who created remarkable illustrations of many of the telescopes at Mount Palomar.

Caltech’s archives offer mediocre reproductions of Porter’s work, but Bruce Weertman has assembled a much more impressive page of the drawings. Nothing compares to seeing the originals, however, and although I have heard tell of a book collecting his work, my (admittedly cursory) searches haven’t revealed anything definitive.

Looking at the above image, the little tiny figures on the lower half of the (oddly shiny) disk show two people and a pick-up truck to scale with the rest of the telescope. Extremely large indeed! Porter provides a similar sense of scale in virtually all of his drawings (an overview of the 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar, for example), and many of his illustrations also show the path light follows through the telescope in addition to mechanical deatils such as gears and supports. He packed a lot into his work.

According to an article on Kevin Hulsey’s website, “famed artist Maxfield Parrish was quoted as saying the following about Porter’s drawings: ‘If these drawings had been made from the telescope and its machinery after it had been erected they would have been of exceptional excellence, giving an uncanny sense of reality, with shadows accurately cast and well nigh perfect perspective; but to think that any artist had his pictorial imagination in such working order as to construct these pictures with no other mechanical data than blue prints of plans and elevation of the various intricate forms is simply beyond belief.’ ”

Long before CAD programs made the job easy (or at least easier), Porter sketched out spectacular visualizations of these phenomenal mid-century achievements. I wonder what we lose by working in an almost exclusively computer-generated realm nowadays. I’m not suggesting going back (necessarily), but… Just wondering.

Colorful flutter-by

Featured on the EurekAlert news service (but inexplicably, not on the GeorgiaTech site that supposedly ran the story), I found an intriguing article on adjusting the color of butterfly wings. The above image shows the effect of depositing different thicknesses of aluminum oxide on a wing, thereby changing its color. Spiffy.

The caption for the image also strikes me as rather spiffy: short and to the point. It reads, “An optical microscope image of coated butterfly wing scales show color differences related to the thickness of the deposited alumina.” Certainly enough info for me, since I know that “nm” means “nanometer,” which presumably refers to the thickness of the aluminum oxide, also mentioned in the image, albeit by its chemical formula (but at least I know that “Al” means “aluminum,” so I felt comfortable extrapolating from the caption). In short, it strikes me as an excellent caption for the scientifically literate, perhaps not so hot for a general audience.

Great picture, regardless. And the rest of the press release is sufficiently complicated that the caption really just serves as a litmus test for further comprehension, so my nit-picking is probably irrelevant.

The press release also contains the mildly amusing line, “The artificial wing scales produced by the researchers also reflect bluish light, though the color is of slightly longer wavelength than that of the original butterfly.” At least it’s amusing if you think of “original butterfly” as a unit of distance, as I did (probably because I was still finishing my first cup of coffee). A very long wavelength, indeed.

Cellular Derailment

The weekend is wrapping up, I just got back from a long weekend in Chicago (without too many delays), and friends I ran into on the subway complimented me on this blog… I should be able to find something nice to say. But no.

I came across the above image in a press release from the Berkeley lab entitled “Regulating the Nuclear Architecture of the Cell” (which has a lot to say about how genetic material clumps in the nucleus, none of which I will discuss because I’m going to obsess over the accompanying image). Even though the press release also presents a nice picture of mutant cell nuclei and a straightforward conceptual diagram on the topic, the article leads with the above image. Why, why, why, why? I beg of you, please tell me why.

I can guess why. I’d call it the “planetarian effect,” simply because that’s where I first encountered the problem, but I suppose it could be called the “press-release effect” or “the b-roll effect” or something similar. In the classic planetarium show, cobbled together by a staff (often at the last minute), one often encounters a line of reasoning to pair images with text: “Hey, we mention the Horsehead Nebula here, so where’s a picture of the Horsehead Nebula?” And the first image that you can find is one that, yeah, shows the Horsehead, but it’s kinda small, since the picture really shows all of Orion’s belt, but at least it’s got the Horsehead in it, so the slide gets dropped in the slide tray (or the JPEG added to the file), and you end up with an image in your show that potentially causes viewers to stop, wonder what it has to do with the narration in the show, and get distracted by imagery that should in fact be helping people understand what’s going on.

I’m guessing that’s what happened here. The thought process probably went along the lines of… “Oh, we’re doing a press release on the nucleolus, so we should have an image that shows what that is.” An absolutely correct and well-intended goal! But then you have to find a decent image. And IMNSHO, the above does not qualify. The relevant part of the caption reads, “The nucleolus (dark blue) resides within the cell nucleus, surrounded by heterochromatin.” Okay. But how does the image fit into the cell as a whole? Is the entire thing the nucleus or just the blurry, less-pixelated part? And how ’bout those heterochromatin? Maybe those are the little diamond-shaped blobs? (Take a look at the Wikipedia article on “cell nucleus” for a decent image of a cell, which might help answer some of those questions. It’s actually quite similar to the one above, but with better labels and clearer lines—and intriguingly similar color choices.)

If you’re lucky, an uninitiated reader will shake their head slightly and continue reading the article. But you run the risk of losing them entirely! All because a poor image distracts or confuses them. The best intentions can completely derail your audience.

Or maybe I’m just grumpy after dealing with Newark and O’Hare in the same day.