Gorrillas off the Map

The image above comes from a Max Planck press release about the effects of ebola on gorilla populations in southern Africa, which was also published in the current issue of Science magazine. The research has disturbing implications (as discussed in a New York Times piece today), but of course, I’m interested in the diagram…

The caption for the image reads simply enough: “Protected areas with major ape populations.” But it took me a moment to absorb exactly what the image was communicating. The grey area represents the range of the gorilla; the outlined regions indicate protected areas (as per the caption). The color of the protected areas is tan if unaffected by ebola, or in the range from white to dark blue depending on the year of the outbreak(s). For some reason, I found this initially unclear.

I think it’s because the affected areas vary in value—i.e., from a very light color to a very dark color—whereas, if I were creating a similar map, I would opt for varying the value between affected and unaffected regions. To represent the dates, I’d most likely use variation in hue while keeping the value pretty much the same. (If you’re unclear on my usage of the terms “value” and “hue,” I’d recommend a page from Charlotte Jirousek’s online textbook on “Art, Design, and Visual Thinking” at Cornell University.)

Aside from the color choice, I think this is a pretty decent diagram. A fair bit of information crammed into a quite small space.

You Got Frost in My Crater!

I’m on the road again, with less-than-stellar Internet access, but here goes. Malin Space Science Systems posted a page on Cantauri Crater and another on Sirenum Crater, both of which show evidence that suggests water flowed on Mars within the last decade—in not just one but two locations! A NASA press release also describes the findings.

It’s hard to come up with a better example of a picture being worth a thousand words, because the pair of images above make the story quite clear. The light-colored gully just looks like what planetary geologists suggest that it is. N.B., however, that the later image was taken in 2005. It’s not like they downloaded the data from the Mars Global Surveyor and posted them the next day! The science team went back and observed the same features over a period of a year, under a variety of lighting conditions, in order to make sure they weren’t falling victim to a trick of light.

So with the clarity comes a caveat: the picture may tell a story in and of itself, but good researchers don’t rely on a single image to form their results.

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.

Follow the Arrows

The above image comes from a Vanderbilt Medical Center Reporter article about mathematical modeling the behavior of tumors. Aside from the minuscule size (they seem to have no larger version online), there’s at least one bizarre omission.

In case you can’t read the teeny-tiny text in the image, it says, in clockwise order from top left: “tumor,” “tumor slice,” “tumor in lattice,” “tumor cells,” “mathematical representation of tumor growth and invasion,” and… Nothing. The last image in the series has no label. From the article, you can glean that the final result is a prediction of tumor growth, but it does seem as though that could be directly addressed in the teeny-tiny graphic.

Or maybe the message is that “mathematical representation of tumor growth and invasion” leads to… Pretty flower-like pictures? Small explosions? Low-res graphics and trapped white space?

Visualize Slacking!

The folks at Slacker Astronomy interviewed me for podcast SG 4.0, and I show up about a third of the way in (that’s 23 minutes into the MP3, although you really should listen to the entire podcast).

Aside from a not-so-hot Skype connection and a fair bit of stammering, it came out pretty well. I talk a bit about my job, the blog, and a recent astro-viz conference. If only I’d known they were chatting about Apothis earlier in the show, I could have described a bit about its uncredited cameo in Cosmic Collisions. C’est la vie. La vie de slack.


The figure appears as part of an ESO press release about asymmetric supernovae. The closer I look at the figure, the more confused I get. I mean, the exploding star on the right indeed appears somewhat asymmetrical, but… What’s actually happening in this image?

The caption for the image reads, “Artist’s impression of how Type Ia supernovae may look like as revealed by the spectr-polarimetry observations. The outer regions of the blast cloud is asymmetric, with different materials found in ‘clumps’, while the inner regions are smooth.” Type Ia supernovae take place when gas from a companion star falls onto a white dwarf. The bright white star on the left looks suspiciously like a white dwarf, but it ain’t the one doing the exploding!

Then there’s the region of what appear to be brighter stars clumped around the “white dwarf.” Maybe that’s supposed to suggest infalling gas? But as previously noted, that’s not the star going boom.

So, yeah, I’m a little confused by this picture.