Face Off

Another brief posting. I ran across an article on EurekAlert claiming that “facial composite systems falling short” that got me looking for a representative image. The one above comes from a 2002 CNN article that implies that such software ives us an “edge over bad guys.” The new study suggests something different, as you might guess.

“In one particular study, only 2.8 percent of participants correctly named a well-known celebrity that had been created by other participants using the face-composite software. In a separate study, participants were unable to discriminate composites of their classmates from composites of students at entirely different schools.”

Doesn’t bode well, eh?

What this underscores is the difference between how the brain processes imagery verus how computer software (for example) processes imagery. As one researcher is quoted, “faces are generally processed, stored and retrieved at a holistic level rather than at the level of individual facial features,” which contrasts with a generally reductionist scientific perspective.

Hmmm. Maybe I noticed this story because of my recent experience in S.F. and because I’ve been warned by several people to watch out here in New Orleans (as one friend put it, “think port city in Victorian England”).

Watch Out!

The little picture above comes from a NASA web page about (obviously enough) Near-Earth Objects. All I can say is yikes! If the space near Earth is that full of stuff, we’d better watch out. It’s almost as bad as The Empire Strikes Back.

Anyway, I apologize for the brief post, but I just arrived in New Orleans and only have network access lounging around the patio of the W Hotel in the French Quarter. I know, hard life. But it’s windfall from an online context, I swear! Anyway, I’ll try to post more later.

Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly Away Home

The above image can be found on an American Institute of Physics webpage that accompanies a brief press relase about nanotube repair. (Amusingly enough, the HTML for the first of the above links seems not to have been changed from the previous Physics News graphic, so it reads “U.S. High-School Enrollment in Physics Classes.”)

Anyway, the caption explains: “The microscopic behavior of a carbon nanotube with a tear resembles somewhat the motion of a ladybug. The rip in the nanotube fabric, caused by heating stressing the nanotube, is sewn up in a moving process in which carbon a pentagon-heptagon structure propagates along the tube.”

Huh? I mean, I think I understand what’s happening, but what does it have to do with ladybugs? I mean, any more than it does an amoeba or something? Cute picture; unhelpful analogy.

I kinda like the filmstrip holes indicating the passage of time, but I wonder how biased that is toward people of a certain age. Do they use film in classes any more? Have most kids seen a movie projector, let alone an actual strip of film?

Oh, by the way, enrollment in high-school physics classes is up!

Above the Clouds

Okay, I just returned to New York from San Francisco and immediately had to present a Virtual Universe program at the Hayden Planetarium, so I’m a little worn out. A cross-country flight, an hour or so of talking, plus dinner with friends has left me a tad exhausted.

Therefore, I’m simply going to react to the image above. Taken by an astronaut (nameless, but perhaps not a would-be kidnapper) and stunningly subtle and moving in its content and composition. At first glance, it looks like something done by a member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, but no… It’s a photograph taken from orbit.

It almost doesn’t look right to me—seems like the shuttle would be higher up than that, field of view strikes me as too small, hard to imagine an astronaut keeping the camera still enough for such an exposure, etc. But the directness of the image manages to overcome all that. The knowledge that a human captured the image makes it intimate, somehow, and the unusual perspective makes it striking. I dunno, maybe I’m just tired, but this picture speaks volumes to me at the moment.

An Excercise

Play a little game with me, if you have the bandwidth (both in terms of time and in terms of connection speed). Take a look at a QuickTime of the concept referenced by the image above. (Actually, it’s only about 3 MB, so you don’t even need much in the way of connection speed.) As you’re watching it, see if you can figure out what’s going on.

The animation is quite clear. I followed most of the story without narration, but I didn’t quite catch the details, and without a narrative to support it, the excellent animation couldn’t carry all the weight of the narrative. This parallels the experience I had in testing animations created for one of the American Museum of Natural History fulldome programs: basically, without narration or subtitles, people don’t know what they’re looking at.

I couldn’t find the press release online, but here’s the description I received via email…

“This new class of objects was discovered using the European ‘INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory’ (INTEGRAL) satellite. Twenty of these binary systems were found, with estimated distances lying between 7,000 and 25,000 light years from Earth, putting them all inside of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The nature of these sources was revealed through multi-wavelength observations, mainly from optical to mid-infrared (MIR) wavelengths, using European Southern Observatory (ESO) facilities.

“Scientists have found that most of these sources are made up of a compact object orbiting a supergiant star, an enormous star with 30 times the Sun’s mass and 20 times its diameter. Stars like this eject a huge amount of cold gas and/or dust at a rate equivalent to emitting the mass of our Sun in just 100,000 years. This type of object is called a High Mass X-ray Binary System (HMXB) and in most cases the compact object is a neutron star, an object of about 1.4 solar masses concentrated in a radius of only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). Normally, an object like this would be an intense source of X-rays as the tremendous gravity and magnetic fields of the neutron star interact with the dense gas and dust emitted from the more massive supergiant star. However, for this new class of objects the cocoon of cold gas and/or dust is so dense it absorbs most, but not quite all, of the high energy X-rays. Only multi-wavelength observations, from X-rays to infrared, were able to reveal the nature of such objects.

“These systems seem to divide into two classes, likely depending on the size and eccentricity (ellipticity) of the orbit of the neutron star around its companion. In the first class of objects, such as IGR J16318-4848, the neutron star orbits around the supergiant star along a roughly circular orbit, like the Earth does around the Sun. However, in this case, the orbit is far smaller: the distance from the neutron star to the supergiant is less than the distance of Mercury from the Sun-even though the supergiant star’s radius is 20 times bigger than that of the Sun.

“Since the cocoon of cold gas/dust totally blankets the whole system, the neutron star stays permanently inside this dense cocoon, so there is a persistent source of X-rays. But in the second class, such as IGR J17544-2619,the orbit is more eccentric, and the neutron star crosses only periodically into this dense cocoon of cold gas/dust covering the supergiant star, causing intermittent emission of X-rays during that time.”

Now watch the animation again. All the elements are there, and the whole thing makes sense now.

The results were presented at the first GLAST Symposium, currently underway not far from my present location. As an aside, I’ll note that I find it interesting that the fulldome planetarium show Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity will be shown as part of the conference. Yay! Domes!

Image and Meaning

As I mentioned in my previous post, I attended the Image and Meaning workshop held at Apple Computer’s Cupertino campus. It feels as though there’s an increasingly large number of people thinking about how images are used to convey scientific concepts, and it was a thrill to hang out with folks and discuss what we do and what troubles (and excites) us.

The core of the workshop took place in the break-out sessions with less than a dozen people. The image above comes from my section’s discussion. Each of us had identified two images prior to the meeting—one we deemed successful and another we found problematic. During our session, we drew two axes on a sheet of butcher paper: one ranged from “specific” to “general” audiences (although “specialist” to “novice” might be a better pairing) and the other from “iconographic” to “realistic.” We then placed our images on the conceptual plane. It stimulated some good discussion.

What I really enjoyed was hearing the perspective of people coming from a variety of backgrounds. In our group, we had everyone from graphic designers to mathematicians, working on problems from earthquake analysis to interstellar gas clouds, for audiences as diverse as professionals to schoolchildren. (One of the mathematicians, Daina Taimina at Cornell University, crochets hyperbolic objects.) Yet we found surprising common ground, and I think everyone would claim to have benefitted from the experience. Yay!

If I have a chance, I&rdsquo;ll try blogging about at least one of our other activities. All in all, I found my day and a half in Cupertino quite stimulating.

Nano Goodness

This is a quickie. I’m attending the Image and Meaning 2.3 workshop. A whole group of people gabbing about imagery and its interpretation! I’m in heaven, as you might imagine.

Anyway, the picture above comes from an NIST press release about nanotechnology. Now, forgive me if I note that the image doesn’t seem to say much. I don’t think it needs to.

The image acts basically as an icon. Honestly, it seems to have nothing to do with the topic (an efficient means of testing nanosamples for quality), but hey, it looks nice! And, I dunno, I can’t really hold that against whoever selected the image. Of course, maybe I’m just being kind because they included a scale with the image.

Allow me to quote the caption in its entirety… “A new NIST method for rapidly assessing the quality of carbon nanotubes was evaluated in part by comparing the results to electron micrographs, which revealed uneven composition such as large bundles of nanotubes and impurities such as metallic particles. (Color added.)”

Kudos to them for the “color added” comment! That’s a black-and-white image, kids, so be thankful they’re ’fessing up that it’s nothing more. And also note that no direct connection is drawn in the caption to the content of the press release. Truth in advertising.

“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.