Dark Matter Observed…
In Visualizations

A new press release from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announces a lack of observational evidence for dark matter nearby: “New measurements show that the amount of dark matter in a large region around the Sun is far smaller than predicted and have indicated that there is no significant dark matter at all in our neighbourhood.”

Pretty significant stuff, but let’s take a look at the accompanying images…

I admire their simplicity, but hey, with dark matter, what choice does a visualizer have? The depiction of the dark matter halo around the Milky Way looks a little clumpy to me, but again, what else can you do? A uniform blob of blue around a galaxy image doesn’t communicate much…

(Admittedly, at the scale of this image, simulations reveal the Milky Way’s dark matter environment to be somewhat clumpy, albeit not in the way depicted in the animation. It’d be keen to use computational data in a visualization such as this one, but I suppose limited time and resources prevent that.)

Anyway, I like the annotated version of the image above; in particular, the indication of the volume of space relevant to the survey.

The accompanying video (available in ESO’s typical plethora of formats) is also an exercise in simplicity, offering a straightforward revolution around the three-dimensional model used to produce the still above. I kinda wish they included the sphere around the Sun once again, just to convey the scale of the survey, but I can guess why they avoided it… Then you have to think about labels, and labels mean language, and it is the European Southern Observatory, after all. Gotta make good b-roll for Hungarian nightly news, I suppose.

And on a final note, not that I would ever nitpick, but… Are those actual galaxy locations in the background? I’ve flown around the Local Group quite a bit, and although adjusting the brightness of the nearby galaxies can change the appearance considerably, I don’t recognize anything in the background. Just curious.

Nice work from ESO, understated but effective. And maybe someday, these kind of press images can be more data-driven.

Hole Lotta Electron Going On!

I know it’s been a good long while since I posted anything to the blog, and my instinct suggests that I should ease into things, maybe start out with an astronomical image and a snarky comment… Keep things simple!

But I ran across this image, and I couldn’t resist. It accompanies a press release about high-powered lasers at UC Santa Barbara. And um, wow! Take a look at the caption:

“Artist’s rendition of electron-hole recollision. Near infrared (amber rods) and terahertz (yellow cones) radiation interact with a semiconductor quantum well (tiles). The near-ir radiation creates excitons (green tiles) consisting of a negative electron and a positive hole (dark blue tile at center of green tiles) bound in an atom-like state. Intense terahertz fields pull the electrons (white tiles) first away from the hole and then back towards it (electron paths represented by blue ellipses). Electrons periodically recollide with holes, creating periodic flashes of light (white disks between amber rods) that are emitted and detected as sidebands. (Credit: Peter Allen, UCSB)”

If brevity is the soul of wit, well…

I think the first thing that confuses is the poorly-conveyed temporal element. If I’m supposed to read something as a sequence in time, either follow a convention (e.g., left to right for English readers, rather than bottom to top, as in this case) or execute it as a sequence of images… Or an animation. But the static image above doesn’t convey the sense of time passing or a series of events.

The more fundamental issue, however, seems to be the presentation of diagrammatic information in what I think of as a “reified” manner. By taking a basic representational diagram and adding elements that suggest a photoreal environment, the image ends up confusing the issues: it takes an abstract representation and describes it with a visual language that suggests real, physical objects. Instead of color-coded dashed lines, for example, we get sparkly little cylinders that look like beads you’d pick up on West 37th Street in Manhattan.

I can only imagine that some grad student got their hands on Blender and went a little wild… “Ooh, I can make these transparent and shiny!” Which is all well and good, but it gets in the way of communicating he fundamental concepts: the gloss may attract attention, but it obscures the underlying content.

(Just as an aside, when I went in search of the Wikipedia article on excitons, in order to provide a helpful link, I ran across an even more psychedelic image! But my little brain just couldn’t deal with writing about both that one and the one above…)

Honestly, I don’t know how to illustrate the remarkably complicated subject of the press release. But the above illustration does not seem to help.

And unfortunately, this kind of thing happens quite a bit in the world of press release images… Because the main interest lies in choosing the flashiest possible image(s), the clarity of the message often becomes obfuscated.

O’er ample Nature I extend my views…

After a long dry spell (what’s three and a half years between friends), I finally migrated this blog off of LiveJournal and onto my own server… And I think I’m going to try posting again! Maybe not as aggressively as I once did, but, you know, baby steps.

So for all half-dozen or so of my avid readers out there, you don’t have to wait to get me seated in a bar at the next conference to know what I’m thinking about some ol’ scientific image or other. Just stop on my by! I’ll also keep y’all updated via Twitter (and by extension, Facebook) whenever I get around to posting something new here.

I’m also going to go back into older posts to clean up some broken links and inconsistent tags. So all in all, welcome to a new and improved “Visualizing Science: Seeing Science in Everyday Life.”

Kant and Kitties

I stumbled across a site called “The Desk of One Astronomer” recently, and it’s… Cute.

I like the overall design of the site, although it reminds me a bit of a mid-90s CD-ROM, and the videos featured (one on “Island Universes” and another on “The Cepheids”) charmed me in spite of their rudimentary design. The content strikes me as rather ambitious, but I admire the way it’s organized: you can locate the same information via multiple entry points, and the interface is consistently visual and inviting.

And I must admit that I’ve never seen a cat used to explain parallax. Adorable.

Evidently, the website sprung from work out of the SciVi group at California State University Los Angeles, which “trains undergraduate and graduate students from three different disciplines—Art, Physics and Astronomy, and Computer Science—to develop accurate and effective scientific visualizations of topics in Cosmology and implement their public dissemination.” Interesting. Should be worth watching in the future.

MyArtinScience

No, not “Martian Science.” ”My Art in Science,” new website that presents scientific imagery from an aesthetic perspective.

The stated goals of the website have a high-falootin’ tone, but I generally find myself nodding in agreement as I read the page. It seems like a good idea to provide a forum for researchers to share work they find visually compelling, and who knows what interest it might spark. I have to admit that I stumble over sentences such as, “This beauty is not manufactured by the scientists or the engineers directly, but appears and shows up in their work, as a side effect of their work,” since I think there is some manufacturing going on, but… More power to ’em!

A representative image appears above. Its caption reads: “This is an image of a comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatogram of crude oil. The image shows peaks representing the heavy alkane, sterane, and hopane molecules in the oil.” Um, okay. I know as much about gas chromatography as I know about animal husbandry, but basically, I think we’re looking at a false-color image that depicts concentrations of various molecules (I think one dimension is spatial and the other temporal, but I don’t get where the repetitive structures come from). It’s a rather pretty image.

Why is it pretty? Well, the physical results of the experiment provide a certain structure to the image. And the colors are rather pleasant, but of course, the scientist had to choose the color scheme, unless it was some default setting on the software used for analysis. So the “art” in the image results, I believe, from the combination of the natural world and the human touch. A side effect of the work? I guess so.

Anyway, go take a look at the site. In theory, scientists will be adding new images on a regular basis.

NSF Visualization Challenge 2008

Another year, another NSF/AAAS Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. With the opening of my institution mere days away (tonight’s the gala), I’ll limit my comments to short and snarky.

As usual, the quick and dirty way of catching up on the challenge winners is to enjoy the Science magazine interactive thingie: you can browse the images, listen to the podcast, etc. The one thing you can’t do unless you subscribe to the magazine is actually read the article. Bummer. The NSF provides a fairly thorough description of the winners with plenty of links, so you can still get a good sense of who did what.

Most of the winners are truly impressive, and thus unworthy of comment (except I’ll note that I quite enjoyed the “Smarter than the Worm” video). Instead, I’ll of course mention the one I didn’t much care for… The “squidsuckers” image above. We’re looking at tiny suction cups (each less than half a millimeter in diameter, with chitin “fangs”) on the arm of a Loligo pealei squid.

First off, I find the garish colors a bit of a turn-off, and the mediocre alignment of the color to the underlying image doesn’t help. Jessica Schiffman, the doctoral student at Drexel University who created the picture, claims that the film Little Shop of Horrors inspired the color scheme (presumably the Frank Oz version, not the original black-and-white movie). That’s cute and all, but I wonder if a novice viewer would interpret these tiny little maws as individual Audrey Juniors, waiting to consume the squid’s prey rather than simply latch onto it.

Polarized Colo(u)r

Long time, no write, except for that silly link last week. I’m still working on that little project in San Francisco, which consumes an extraordinary amount of time.

At any rate, I saw the above image, which accompanies a press release from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and I figured I could express my thoughts quickly enough not to feel too guilty about taking the time to write.

The press release bears the title “Accretion Discs Show Their True Colours,” which describes the different appearance of quasars in polarized light. The press release describes the research well: “‘The crucial observational difficulty here has been that the disc is surrounded by a much larger torus containing hot dust, whose light partly outshines that of the disc,’ says Kishimoto. ‘Because the light coming from the disc is scattered in the disc vicinity and thus polarised, by observing only polarised light from the quasars, one can uncover the buried light from the disc.’”

The image does pretty well, too, except I have some nagging issues with it. Of course, the little circles with vertical lines suggest polarization to the initiated (although they also remind me of those glasses Chris Lowe wore back in the late 80s that I wanted so much), but I fear that visual shorthand is lost on a large percentage of the audience. And even if you get it, why does the little circle moving over the image change the color of the entire image? It would be much better if only the part inside the circle changed color. A little Photoshop work would make this image much, much clearer.

So how’s that for succinct?

(BTW, in nosing around for a link to “polarized light,” I ran across Polarization.com, which suggests to me that there really is a website for just about everything.)

 

Hubble Space Kaleidoscope

I’ll break my silence with a simple link… To The Onion article “Hubble Kaleidoscope Finds Evidence Of Space Looking All Crazy” that appears in this week’s issue. I don’t know how long that link will stay active but bwa-ha-ha-ha! Dang funny.

And there’s some truth to it, too. I’m inspired to round out my next column for the Communicating Astronomy with the Public Journal.

La viande robotique

Just an unusual image I ran across in the Journal of the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), in an article entitled “The Robot Butcher” (I can’t make these things up).

Why have a robot cut meat? Efficiency, it seems: the do-dad above can prep 250 kilograms of meat per hour versus the 100 kilograms per hour by its human competitor. And it does so with a smaller margin of error. No way to get a little extra from the butcher anymore. No special cut. And no one to flirt with, either (I’m thinking of Alice on the Brady Bunch here).

The oddness of the image, however, lies in the striking contrast between the mechanized butcher and the all-too fleshy substance of the meat. Somehow, it seems unfair to the cow, and moreover, seems like an intrusion of the mechanical into an utterly animalistic behavior—namely the consumption of one critter by another.

Hrm. Anyway…

There’s a kinda interesting diagram of the Sun, too, but I found the robot butcher more engaging, for whatever reason.

Clan Apis

I just ran across Jay Hosler’s Clan Apis comic book. I’m not a bio kind of guy, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of either the drawings or the science embedded in the story, but both seem spot on. Hosler’s artwork treats the bees with loving detail, while maintaining a pleasant and readable style that hints at manga. The book follows the life of a single bee, Nyuki, touching on her life cycle and the structure of the hive as a whole. A story brilliantly told, with an admirable blend of science and humor.

Clan Apis also receives extensive treatment on Hosler’s website, including a section-by section treatment of the story and the science. Really nice stuff.

This also reminds me of the nascent work of the Small Science Collective, a group of folks (some of whom I happen to know) who create downloadable “mini-zines” with science stories. The idea here is much more of a guerilla tactic: make the comics available for free! (Much like the reprehensible Chick tracts that litter far too many of our nation’s public transportation systems.

As a long-time reader of comics and comic books, I love seeing them used like this!