“Visualizing” Astronomy

Geez, everyone’s getting into “visualizing” nowadays! Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics (CfA) just announced its “Visualizing Astronomy“ lecture series, an effort which I commend.

That said, looking at the image above, which runs as a little banner at the bottom of the aforementioned page, gives me pause. All gorgeous pictures, which seem to map one-to-one to the first four presenters in the series… At least, I recognize two off the bat. First on the left, we have Robert Hurt’s Orion Nebula (with a bit of Zoltan Levay’s Hubble version thrown in), right next to Travis Rector’s Rosette Nebula. And, okay, I recognize the one on the right as well: the recent Spitzer-Hubble-Chandra image of M82, which intersects with Robert Hurt and Zoltan Levay and (I guess) Daniel Wang, since he works with Chandra. The second from the right… I’m sure I could dig it up if I had the time, but I’m thinking I can rely on a reader (or two) to set me straight (as it were).

But here’s the point I want to make. All noble images, all four of ’em! But to have them represent “visualizing astronomy” is like having photos of animals (all shown at the same scale, no less, from amoebae to ants to elephants) represent visualizing zoology! The process of visualization seems to me so much more complex, so much richer than compositing imagery of various wavelengths (again, a noble aspect of the endeavor, but only one aspect) that I can only look upon these four wee images with a little sadness. What about visualizations of three-dimensional datasets, near and dear to my heart? What about diagrams and charts, however maligned they may be? What about space art, such as it is? Dang it, there’s a universe of visualization opportunities out there! And CfA, as the text on the lecture page suggests, intersects with many such efforts.

The word “visualize” sounds good. It has a ring to it. People take notice when they hear it. I know, after all, it’s part of my title. But we should make sure it maintains its aura, its mystique, by not curtailing its breadth of meaning.

This, BTW, is a small community. I’ve probably just offended somebody I know (and like). Sigh.

How Do You See Invisible Nutrients?

This is actually a bit of a follow-up to my post from last night, in which I discussed visualizing invisible germs. As I read through Michael Pollan’s brilliant article from Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I decided that there was something of a connection. In describing political lobbies’ removal of specific (“red-meat and dairy”) language from government recommendations, he writes, “the culprit is an obscure, invisible, tasteless—and politically unconnected—substance that may or may not lurk in them called ‘saturated fat.’ ” Invisible indeed! How do we think of things that lie beyond our senses?

(As a brief aside, I can’t emphasize “brilliant” enough in describing Pollan’s work. I find myself recommending his two most recent books, Botany of Desire and Omnivore’s Dilemma, more than pretty much any other reading material.)

So the image above is literally the first one that crops up (um, so to speak) when you google “nutrient“ as an image search. Of course, no nutrients are visualized in the diagram, but something interesting happens instead: nutrients are visualized as the relationships between the organisms in the diagram. Following the lead of the little pictures of cows and corn, perhaps the “Nitrogen Fertilizers” box should have a little drawing of a factory, but the key is that the obscure and invisible is envisioned in terms of connections between the concrete and mundane. (Obviously, the emphasis lies on a single element in the intricate relationships between the various parts of the diagram, but the sheer number of arrows communicates the system’s implicit complexity.)

Indeed, in both his books and in the article referenced above, Pollan focuses on the relationships between humans and plants—between us and our food—and the two-way, co-evolutionary nature of those relationships. He describes a “nutritionism” worldview, in which “the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.”

This turns out to be a critique of strict scientific reductionism as well as an indictment of a food culture that emphasizes listing “dos” and “don’ts” rather than taking a more holistic approach to eating. Pollen therefore recommends going back to eating food instead of “edible foodlike substances,” but he also calls for consideration of the other cultural accoutrements of dining—growing and preparing food, sharing communal meals, and so forth. “In borrowing from a food culture, pay attention to how a culture eats, as well as to what it eats.”

In terms of “visualizing science,” what I find intriguing about these ideas is that they don’t lend themselves to a visual interpretation. Unlike yesterday’s germs, which lend themselves to caricatures and cartoons, the idea of a “nutrient” cannot be expressed in a terribly concrete visuals; instead, one must use diagrams or sequential art to place it into a real context. Thus, you end up with a picture like the one above, revealing a nutrient in terms of its relationship to entities we can visualize.

A detail I rather enjoy about the image, BTW, is the only color that appears—in the form of a lightning bolt! Indeed, lightning plays a role in the nitrogen cycle, although its importance may be visually exaggerated by the use of color. Still kinda cute.

Please forgive a slight digression now as I shift from the visual to the literary… Because I just happened to read Charles Dickens’s ”American Notes for General Circulation, I feel compelled to quote a portion of his chapter describing a trip “From Pittsburg To Cincinnati In A Western Steamboat”: “Nobody says anything, at any meal, to anybody. All the passengers are very dismal, and seem to have tremendous secrets weighing on their minds. There is no conversation, no laughter, no cheerfulness, no sociality, except in spitting; and that is done in silent fellowship round the stove, when the meal is over. Every man sits down, dull and languid; swallows his fare as if breakfasts, dinners, and suppers, were necessities of nature never to be coupled with recreation or enjoyment; and having bolted his food in a gloomy silence, bolts himself, in the same state.” So Americans’ poor relationship to food dates back as far as 1842!

How Do You See Invisible Germs?

Sorry for the gap in posts, but the last few days have been a little hectic. And I suppose it’s appropriate that I seem to be coming down with a bit of a cold as I decide to write about The Gospel of Germs by Nancy Tomes. I just finished Tomes’s book last week, and it inspired me to think about how the invisible is visualized in a popular context. Her perceptive and illuminating book describes the acceptance and interpretation of the germ theory of disease around the turn of the last century—from advertising to anti-tuberculosis societies, from labor unions to Listerine. Fascinating stuff.

Because 19th-century microscopes didn’t really allow for photography (I tried searching for when the first photographs were taken through a microscope, to no avail, but I’ll update you if I learn anything), drawings of microbeasties had to stand in for actual photos. Of course, the same was true of most imagery that appeared in a newspaper or magazine of the day—it all had to be represented in etchings or lithographs (the first newspaper photograph appeared in 1880, although I admit that my source is a little off the beaten track). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find images online to help me illustrate the concept in the context of that time period. But the above drawing, which comes from a web page about “Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History” from the University of Califoria Irvine, underscores the basic idea.

I have previously commented on the unreliability of drawings compared to less subjective means of recording data, but Tomes’s book and the drawing above raise another issu: when the subjective role of illustration actually takes precedence over its objective goals. The point of the cartoon is not to communicate what a germ looks like—instead, it simply stands in for an unseen critter that obviously poses some kind of threat to us. It looks like a nasty bug. Indeed, some of the illustrations that appear in Tomes’s book use the same visual vocabulary—the insect-like features, the hairiness—to communicate the same thing (albeit not in such a cartoonish manner). Look at the iconography that surrounds the ever-popular Airborne® health formula, with its colorful, slightly creepy but mostly effete and harmless “bugs.” A little bit of the 19th-century threat remains, but the slightly bowdlerized images allow us to view the microscopic world as something fundamentally under our control.

Nowadays, when the variety of imagery available to us via microscopy, we can think of the microscopic world as incredibly detailed, fluorescently colored, or perhaps confusingly abstract, a cartoon like the one above is easily interpreted for what it is. But when an image represents a new concept, it’s all too easy for it to become literalized. I don’t know how many people at the end oft he 19th century perceived newspaper and magazine ad illustrations as true depictions of the (quite threatening) microscopic world, but surely the less cartoonish, albeit similarly demonizing, illustrations had an effect.

Bent Light, Broken Caption

Too much to blog about! I’m getting backlogged… And just to complicate matters, here’s a new graphic from the European Sapce Agency that’s too much to pass up.

The image above shows Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, as seen in a slightly odd mix of visible and infrared light (if you really must know). The white line beneath Titan shows a “light curve,” which represents the intensity of light on the vertical axis, time on the horizontal axis, indicating the brightness of the star measured as it “passed behind” Titan through a trick of rotational and orbital dynamics in our solar system. The dimming of the star as it passes behind Titan reveals information about the moon’s atmosphere, and the peak of light in the center shows that the atmosphere acts like a lens, focussing light from the opposite side of the planet. The press release goes into some detail about how much we can learn from such observations, right down to predicting a bumpy ride for a spacecraft!

Now, I won’t claim my explanation above as the be-all-end-all, but I think the caption on ESA’s page doesn’t offer enough information about what’s going on in the still image. It never explains the term “light curve,” for example. I understand the reluctance to put words on the graphic (not so much for NASA, but for ESA serving a multilingual constituency), but the caption should compensate.

The animation of the graphic shows what’s happening much better, and I imagine the still image will make sense to people once they’ve seen the animation. N.B. that the caption for the animation is the same length as the caption for the still image—a stylistic requirement, I’m guessing. But the still image, with so much less information in it and so much more information implied by it, requires more verbiage to support it.

Quarks of Many Colors

I have to say, I’m kinda floored by this one.

The above image is associated with a December 2004 press release entitled “Jefferson Lab’s journey into the nucleus” that I ran across completely by accident. The non-animated version caught my eye, in part because of the caption: “An artist’s impression of a quark being struck by a virtual photon (a). As the quark propagates through nuclear matter, it loses energy by emitting gluons (b) and creating pairs of quarks and anti-quarks (c). As the system begins to return to equilibrium, two-quark systems (pions) are formed (d).” Admirably, it starts right off with the phrase “artist’s impression.” And quite an impressionistic impression at that!

The caption that appears with the above, animated image (and, inexplicably, the title “Simple Experimental Simulation”) could use a similar qualification, in my opinion: “This movie illustrates the action inside the nucleus of a deuterium atom containing a proton and a neutron, each with three quarks. An electron strikes a quark inside a proton, passing energy to the quark before the electron bounces back. The quark now has so much energy ‘stuffed’ into it, it creates a cascade of new particles as it flies out of the proton. The result is two new, two-quark particles.”

First off, I have to note that having the GIF loop creates a problem, namely that the linear process of the reaction is shown blending back into itself. Awkward to say the least. Initially, I was inclined to blame my browser, but then I took a closer look at the file and noted that it seemed to be designed to loop, and indeed, a quick check with Adobe ImageReady revealed it to indeed be designed as a loop. Yikes! Ideally, there would at least be a few frames of black between the end and the beginning of the sequence, but to design it to loop continuously is highly misleading.

Of course, there’s plenty of misleading aspects to this representation. Basically, what we’re looking at is a Feynmann diagram, which is normally shown as a tinkertoy-type diagram of lines and squiggles (tinkertoys and springs, I guess). The imagery above includes a lot more information—colors represent different types of quarks, for example—which strikes me as rather clever and quite aesthetically pleasing, but…

What troubles me about the image is that it’s using a somewhat representational style to illustrate a fundamentally abstract concept. The almost biological quality of the pions slithering off toward the end may be rather striking, but what does it mean? In terms of communicating the underlying concepts, well, I hate to sound boring, but a more straightforward approach may be better suited. I admire Jefferson Lab for trying something different, but caution is required—or at least a cautionary note!

The initial caption, clearly indicating “artist’s impression” from the get-go, addresses my cautionary concerns, but it’d be even better if there were a brief essay by the artist involved. What choices did he or she make in creating the image? What do the colors mean? What motivated the somewhat biological look of the illustration?

In a medium better known for its objectivity than its artistry, a diagram may deserve a colorful interpretation, but as always, the subjective layer may add unintended meanings.

The UR Image

I just returned from Boston, where I attended the Science and Society conference had poor network access. I had my laptop for making notes, however, so I have posted a few conference-related commentaries—one on Al Gore’s keynote address and another about an Einstein sketch that was used in a presentation.

The picture above accompanied a press release from the University of Rochester, describing the storage of image data in a single photon. The concept is actually related to the topic of the single-electron experiment that I described in a recent post, albeit relying on the interference of photons, not electrons.

I’m intrigued by the choice of image used to support the press release. Thanks to digital photography (and probably the Internet, too), people now think of images as information in a way that probably didn’t seem as intuitive even a decade ago. So the use of an image to illustrate stored data makes more sense now that it would have previously.

FYI, the discovery is also described in a Washington Post article that appeared on Friday.

A diagram of the instrument set-up is perhaps not so helpful, at least not without a caption.

Einstein, Illustrator

I have to say that the speakers at the Science and Society Conference, which I happen to be attending, seem averse to using much imagery in their presentations. We’ve seen a video clip and a few PowerPoints, but not as much as I was counting on. In part because I had hoped to blog about and belit—er, critique them here.

Interestingly, in his talk, Gerry Wheeler inserted a diagram similar to the one above (sans kanji). It’s adapted from a letter Einstein wrote to Maurice Solovine on 7 May 1952, depicting a diagram of Einstein’s epistemological view of the scientific process. Briefly, “E” represents the world of sense experience, “A” the axioms of science, and “S”es the specific statements (predictions) that result from the axioms. Arriving at the axioms occurs through a process of “intuitive connection,” according to Einstein, but lead to the specific statements that can be compared to the real world of experiment and experience.

I’m curious why Einstein chose to sketch the idea in such a manner; I’ve looked over some of his papers (my institution organized an entire Einstein exhibit, after all), but he didn’t seem like much of a sketcher to me. And I haven’t asked Wheeler, but I’m curious if part of the reason he highlighted the diagram is because, well, it’s a diagram.

A diagram (particularly in a letter) stands out on a page. It draws your attention. And if you’re at all visual, which I think most folks are, then it may very well stick in your head, becoming a stand-in for the concept it represents. At first glance, it’s hard to see why Einstein would bother sketching this very conceptual and abstract process, but as a communication technique, it certainly makes the point well.

And perhaps, too, the concept resided in Einstein’s brain in a visual way. Perhaps the sketch was the most obvious means of expressing his thought.

I dunno. Perhaps.

Anyway, you can find a low-resolution scan of the actual letter on a Japanese web page describing its contents (Babelfish does an interesting job translating the page, BTW). I assume it’s also reproduced as part of an American Psychotherapy Association article I found, but I didn’t shell out the five bucks to find out—regardless, the article offers a translation of the letter for free! You can also look for a copy of Letters to Solovine, which includes the letter (and many more) in its entirety.

Gore on Television

No picture, just words for this post.

In his opening remarks for the Science and Society Conference, former Vice President Al Gore spoke “off the record,” so I don’t know if I’m supposed to blog about it. So we’ll see if this gets me in trouble.

He spoke about climate change, of course, as well as the Republican “war on science” (although he didn’t use that phrase), although Gore saved his harshest words for television. His objections will sound familiar (the dumbing-down of news and such), but he offered an interesting argument for television’s addictive aspects, namely that it triggers our evolutionary responses to rapid movement in our visual field. Gore also blamed the problems (at least in part) on a transition to “symbolic, image-based communication versus word-based communication.“

Whoa! A rather strong statement from a guy with a movie that just came out on DVD.

I’m just going to ramble for a moment, here, but… The argument, I suppose, would go that television makes us dumber, basically (or as I prefer to say it, television sucks out your brain), which probably has something to do with the fact that engages less cerebral parts of your brain. Perhaps we’re more easily victimized by a technology that communicates directly with the reptile brain in our heads rather than engaging the more abstract language centers we utilize when we read The New York Times or The National Enquirer.

Can’t say I’m inclined to argue much, but of course, there’s unquestionably a place for the medium—the problem is that it has become the dominant means for people (well, Americans at least) to learn about the world.

I was delighted to catch all Gore’s references to Walter Ong’s ideas about transitions in communication technology causing cultural shifts and spurring the advancement of science. I’ve been a fan of Orality and Literacy for some time, and I enjoyed hearing his ideas strung together so fluidly by Gore. And the references ranged much more widely than Ong—history, science, and philosophy all strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage, and I, personally, left thrilled and depressed, thinking how great it would be to have a president who could weave such a narrative.


As Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, put it at the end of the conference, where was that Al Gore back in 2000?

Stars, Planets, and Dwarfs

The above, rather featureless image of the Sun comes from a Google video that shows the scale of spherical objects in the Universe. It begins with an image of Mercury (N.B. not Pluto) and proceeds through all the planets of our solar system, from smallest to largest, then through a selection of stars of increasing size. The snapshot shows the transition from the planets (those itty, bitty blobs on the right, which are just the giant planets of our solar system) to the stars…

It’s cute. I like it. But here’s the caveat: some stars are smaller than the planets pictured. So the sequence gives the impression that there’s a much greater distinction between the two categories (of “star” and “planet”) than actually exists. In fact, an continuum exists that gives astronomers a bit of a headache. (Check out a comparison chart not dissimilar from the above from the educational resources at the Dwarf Archive.)

Communicating the scale of the Universe is a tricky thing, but as the recent Pluto controversy has shown us, classifying objects (even spherical ones) can be even trickier!

Tip of the hat to my friend who pointed this out.