Building Towers in the Tempest

The teeny-tiny image above comes from a NASA press release about a energy flow near the eye of a hurricane. A high-resolution TIFF of the same inexplicably eliminates the captions, leaving one with an unlabelled, multicolored, meaningless image—my favorite!

The image above bears some resemblance to a previous visualization of Hurricane Bonnie, but I’m actually not going to complain about this awful image presented with a press release of some interest. Instead, I’m going to call attention the remarkable new visualization that supports the above story. The full video (at several resolutions) and numerous stills (at resolutions of 320×180 or 144 times larger, but none in between) can also be downloaded from Goddard’s Science Visualization Studio website.

The full piece does a respectable job of explaining the whole “tower cloud” concept shown in the above image. I recommend watching it. The visuals and narration mesh nicely, telling a pretty good story. Furthermore, if you’re interested in how such media pieces come into being, you can take a look at an illustrated storyboard for the video. Well done!

Dilemmas, Ethical and Pictoral

A brief post today, in reference to today’s New York Times article, “Genetic Testing + Abortion = ???”

The caption for the image above reads, “BEYOND ROE New technology may complicate the debates over abortion.” But of course, the ultrasound technology depicted in the image is not the technology in question. Instead, we’re talking about the role genetic tests play in people’s decisions about whether to abort a fetus.

I admit that the art director in me understands why one would select an image that says “prenatal technology” over one that says something less specific to the headline. But it’s a bit like doing the wrong keyword search in Google. Much more germane to the topic would be more abstract images of magnified amniotic fluid or genetic test analysis.

This strikes me as a good example of the competing interests in selecting imagery to complement a complex story. Both image choices (the Times’ and mine) relate to the story, but one has to ask what the purpose of the image is: whether it’s to act as an attractor or to illuminate a story element. Both approaches have their faults, since I would admit that the images I dug up in two minutes’ of searching don’t exactly clarify what’s going on so much as they offer visual stand-ins for the techniques that contribute to the growing ethical dilemma.

Moon and Pen

Above, we have Ewen Whitaker’s 1954 map of the lunar south pole, which shows up as today’s Lunar Photo of the Day (LPOD), although of course, it’s not a photo… Well, why be picky? It’s a gorgeous drawing described as follows in the LPOD entry: “Despite a fleet of lunar probes and modern high resolution imaging, the best observer’s map of the south polar region of the Moon remains one drawn a half century ago.”

What strikes me as utterly compelling about the above image is what I read as simplicity and clarity in it: the bold lines that delineate craters and ridges, the dotted lines offering a sense of depth, the multiple but surprisingly unobtrusive names and labels. At the same time, these are conventions that I recognize and understand (as well as the general depiction of perspective), and I’m curious to know how a novice would read this image.

Perhaps because I draw, I find such illustrations very compelling. But I think it’s simply the human touch… Utterly apparent in the handwritten words (right down to the question marks) and the quality of the lines on the page (or computer screen). These elements pull me into the image in a way that almost no Adobe Illustrator images can.

But LPOD author Chuck Wood makes an interesting point: there is a clarity and interpretive value lent by the human touch. “The best observer’s map of the south polar region” issues from an artist’s pen, not a digital camera.

Yesterday’s LPOD tells a related but somewhat different story, comparing a drawing and a photo of the same region of the Moon. As the post says, “Sally, an experienced observer and skilled artist, captured the essence, the feeling of this area, and Simon captured the reality. ” The drawing and photo, side by side, reveal something unsurprising yet somewhat poignant. The eye and hand versus the CCD.

Magical Healing Powers

I noticed the above image in a press release about using oncolytic viruses alongside more traditional cancer treatments. The caption reads, “Recent studies also indicate that reoviruses work synergistically with standard anti-cancer drugs, providing significantly stronger responses than either agent alone.”

Sounds great, if only slightly creepy. I think of viruses as things to be avoided, but hey, if we can get the little buggers on our side, all the better.

I don’t have much to say about the picture, except that it, too, strikes me as slightly creepy. The disembodied (presumably cancerous) lungs hovering inside a transparent body that recalls Wonder Woman’s invisible jet. The glowing blue treatment entering the un-body intravenously. Everything inside a completely sterile, indeed blank and empty box. I have no idea what this image says about medicine, but let’s jsut say that it doesn’t exude warmth.

But then, I just saw the extremely compassionate Sherwin Nuland as part of my new institution’s lecture series, so perhaps I set my sights too high.

Motionless Conveyor Belt

Today’s image comes from a press release telling us that “Optoelectronic Tweezers Push Nanowires Around” (whether we like it or not, I suppose).

I’m minutes away from attending a symposium here in Edmonton, Alberta, so this will have to be brief. But I was struck, the moment I saw the above image, that I felt as though I knew what was going on. It’s analogous to a board game in which pieces are moved along a path; the thing is, it’s probably even more analogous to the cartoons used to describe a charge-coupled device (CCD), with which I’m all too familiar.

So my question is how familiar this iconography would be to somebody unfamiliar with computers and CCDs and such. Does it immediately call to mind games of parcheesi and thus convey its message clearly and concisely? Or does it in fact communicate little or nothing? The caption explains that it’s an “image of an ‘optical conveyer belt’ in which particles can be trapped while moving under the influence of electric fields,” which is probably exactly the right amount of information to convey the essence of what’s happening (in spite of misspelling “conveyor”). But what kind of mental image is the reader left with?

I guess I feel as though I’m coming at the image with a lot of (possibly erroneous) information—about electronics, about how CCDs operate, which makes me read a certain amount into the image as it’s presented. I’m curious what someone without my background (or biases) sees in it.

Anyone care to offer their $0.02?

Wee Molten Mercury

Wow! Has it really been over a month since I posted anything? I cannot apologize enough for my laxity, but I hope you will forgive me. In the last several weeks, I have actually made a leap across country to accept a new position as Director of the Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California. I talk about the shift on my Yahoo 360° blog, but in this forum, I’ll stick to kvetching about visualizations.

Today’s image comes from an NRAO press relase about measuring slight variations in Mercury’s spin rate, which leads to the conclusion that Mercury’s core is molten, not solid. Yay! Great science. But this picture… (I apologize to Bill Saxton, whose name appears so prominently associated with the picture. I don’t know you, Bill, but I have to admit that your image doesn’t win me over.) As we used to say in the 80s, “So close and yet so far.”

The caption for the image runs a little long for haiku, but not by much: “High-precision planetary radar technique sent signal to Mercury, received reflection.”

The essential point of the image, therefore, must be the little lines (with directional markings) that run between Earth and Mercury: yellow represents radio transmissions, red represents signals reflected back toward Earth (information that could have gone into the caption, I’m just sayin’…). I actually think this comes across pretty well in the picture.

But then, things go slightly awry. In addition to the elements above, we have orbit lines as well as the Sun and Venus—all confusing the central message of the diagram. I even had to do a double-take, looking at the spherical object partially eclipsed by the Sun for a moment before I realized it was Venus (i.e., the planet in between Mercury and Earth that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story). What makes matters worse is that Earth’s orbit and Venus’s seem to lie nearly atop one another! We all know the Mies van der Rohe quote about less being more, and indeed, in diagrams, the aphorism often holds true.

A further note… This strikes me as a situation in which the perspective view is not particularly helpful. A top-down view might communicate the whole situation more clearly, particularly since it would give a little more room to show the path difference between the reflected signals.

(And I can’t help but add one final complaint, which has to do with the random, speckled, “starry” background. Grrrr. We have perfectly good, real stars to use as a background, so why create unrealistic artwork when the real thing looks much, much better?)

Whew! Well, it’s nice to be back. I thought about posting something cheery and positive for my return to the blogosphere. You can see how easily that impulse was overcome!

Purple Rose of Virgo?

Okay, I liked the Woody Allen film as much as anybody, but why has ESO titled its latest press release “the Purple Rose of Virgo”?

Aside from my lack of comprehension regarding the obscure (I’m not sure I could even call it “pop”) culture reference, I have a gripe with the reference to color. “Purple” is a tricky color, and one that doesn’t occur via blackbody radiation. So it seems inappropriate to describe a galaxy by a color it only possesses because of image manipulation.

In the biz, we call this “color enhanced.” But it should not suggest the actual color of the object, nor should it be used as the basis for a press release title!

Grumble. Time for more coffee.

(Oh, by the way, that’s a supernova below and to the right of the center of the galaxy! Nifty.)

Blurry Binocs

I apologize for my lack of posts recently. I’ve been terribly distracted—in way I’ll announce soon enough—and the blog has languished. For which I apologize. We’ll see if I can get back in my groove!

A quickie for today. I just ran across the fantastic Journal of Vision: “a scientific periodical devoted to all aspects of visual function in humans and other organisms,” published for free online in a format that “encourages the effective use of color, multimedia, hyperlinks, program code, and other digital enhancements.” Hours of fun! This is great stuff.

The image above comes from an article about how contrast differences affect binocular vision. (BTW, a “saccade” is a rapid movement of the eye; that will help you decipher a good part of the article.) A little on the technical side, but the kind of information that might be helpful when designing content for, say, a stereo display.

There’s more to come! Just a teaser while I get back in the swing of things…

Poisoned Intution

The above image comes from a NASA multimedia piece released the other day. Although the caption doesn’t say so, I’m 99% sure that’s exaggerated terrain. It would be nice if the caption indicated that.

This actually qualifies as one of my “Planetarium Pet Peeves” and thus requires little further complaint on my part. I’ll quote two of my colleagues on the topic, even though their words also appear on the “pet peeves” page…

As Chris Anderson puts it, “When we fly audiences over a vertically exaggerated landscape, we poison their intuition about the way these worlds would actually appear.” Or, as my colleague Carter Emmart has been known to observe, “even Iowa looks mountainous when you exaggerate its terrain by a factor of ten.”

Sunset Sadness

The above image is circulating via email accompanied by the following message:

“A scene you will probably never get to see, so take a moment and enjoy God at work at the North Pole. This is the sunset at the North Pole with the moon at its closest point. And, you also see the sun below the moon. An amazing photo and not one easily duplicated. You may want to pass it on to others.

“The Chinese have a saying that goes something like this:

“ ‘When someone shares with you something of value, you have an obligation to share it with others!’ ”

First of all, allow me to assure you that you have no obligation to pass this along to anybody! It’s not what it purports to be. And why do we always attribute sayings to the Chinese? I recently kvetched to some colleagues about the “picture is worth a thousand words” saying being so described, when in fact, it’s due to Fred Barnard, an American advertising manager in the 1920s. Anyway, anyway, anyway,…

This picture is not from the North Pole; it’s computer generated. How can I tell? (Aside from the tell-tale fakeness of the image?) First, the sun and moon are basically the same size as observed from Earth, so you would never see a giant moon like the one above. Also, because of Earth’s tilt, a crescent moon can never appear directly above a setting sun at the North Pole.

This isn’t “God at work”! This is Bryce 3D!

Sigh.

I keep starting to write annoyed and disparaging things, but perhaps I should just go to bed. Just, please, don’t forward this image to anybody. Ever.