Of Nebulae and Drawings

I noticed a slight error that seems to be floating around out there on the net. Several “this day in history” sites, including the Wikipedia page on 4 March list today as the “first sighting of Orion Nebula by William Herschel” in 1774. Strictly speaking that’s not untrue—Herschel seems to have made his first observations of the Orion Nebula on 4 March 1774, but in fact, telescope observations of the nebula had originally been described by Peiresc back in 1610 (cf. a lengthy list of early observations of deep-sky objects).

What’s important about Herschel observing Orion is that it got him started on a massive cataloging campaign that resulted in a list of thousands of deep-sky objects. And a numbering system that’s still in use today!

All this thinking about the Orion Nebula reminded me of the image shown above—a sketch by William Herschel’s son John. I link to a fine-art print offered by David Malin of the same, and in a continuing cascade of connections, I also wanted to point out a marvellous essay by Malin in which he compares Herschel the Younger’s drawing to (a somewhat more psychedelic) one created by William Parsons. As he points out, differences between the two images “result not from changes in the nebula or in telescopic power, but from subjective differences in the way their creators saw, remembered, and sketched what was essentially the same subject.” I’ve blogged about related issues before, but Mailin is both nicer and more eloquent than I.

Anyway, I hope you appreciate a random stroll down this-day-in-history lane.

Lunar Transit

NASA’s Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) mission released a spiffy video of the Moon transiting the Sun. I find myself oddly captivated by the video, watching it over and over…

It reminds me of the good ol’ days of the SGI Reality Centers, when managing high-resolution data was a bigger deal than it is today. They would loop TRACE imagery of the Sun. I think I could watch it for hours, although I never really had the chance. And when we tested audiences for our Cosmic Collisions space show, it seemed I wasn’t alone, since people responded most positively to the solar images.

At the same time, I kind of dislike the color. It seems garish, even though I know it’s done in the standard mappping style. Heck, the web page even tells us: “The Sun as it appears in these the images and each frame of the movie is a composite of nearly simultaneous images in four different wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light that were separated into color channels and then recombined with some level of transparency for each.” Except for the “some level of transparency” bit, that’s a fairly lucid explanation.

More lucid than this post, I suppose. But you should watch the movie!

Spheres in a Plane

Yeah, I remember those long nights at my college paper (The Cornell Daily Sun, if you’re curious) when we’d be laying out a page and recognize the need for a photo to fill space and look pretty and make the design more appealing. And, well, sometimes the photo we’d choose would be, um, kind of a stretch.

Kinda like the image above.

It accompanies a press release on computer simulations of atomic processes in nanomaterials, accompanied by a delightfully mystifying caption: “This three-dimensional atomic simulation shows the absorption of a line defect (caused by an impinging screw) by an existing twin boundary (green spheres) in nano-twinned copper.”

Um, huh? Does that mean anything? I honestly think that someone at MIT decided they needed a picture to go with the text, even if it’s meaningless. Twin boundary? It’s explained as “an abrupt internal interface each side of which is a precise mirror reflection of atoms of the other side” in the press release. But how is that shown as spheres exactly? Anyway, problem piles atop problem, leaving a lack of clarity in its wake.

Built for Pluto, Flew by Jupiter

I should be ashamed of myself! Another spacecraft image? After the one on Sunday? Well, yes.

A press release from the New Horizons team describes the spacecraft’s successful fly-by of Jupiter earlier today. It snapped a the montage of pictures above on its quick pass through the system. Of course, the camera was designed to work out near Pluto—where the Sun’s illumination is some 60 times dimmer than near Jupiter. As described in the picture caption: “LORRI [Long Range Reconnaissance Imager] took the images as the Sun was about to set on the Little Red Spot. The LORRI camera was designed to look at Pluto, where sunlight is much fainter than it is at Jupiter, so the images would have been overexposed if LORRI had looked at the storm when it was illuminated by the noonday Sun.”

I think it’s great to see black-and-white images released, but I wonder what people think. It’s pretty spiffy to take a couple snapshots en route to your final destination, right? (“We were on our way to New Orleans, but we stopped off in Biolxi and took a couple pictures.”) In context, it seems appealing and engaging.

This got me to thinking about gravity assists, too. I’m keen to find an animation that illustrates the concept well, particularly one that show the spacecraft in both the solar system frame of reference and the assisting planet’s frame of reference. An animation from ESA comes close, but doesn’t quite get the details right.


A brief note today, although I should note that I’ve had some networking issues over the last few days, so I’ve actually posted several new items on my blog: a pointer to some sexist imagery, my first-ever post on a video segment, and the obligatory reference to the discovery of Supernova 1987A twenty years ago. Sorry for the glut of words!

Anyway, today’s image comes from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Eventually, the mission will explore Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in excruciating detail, but earlier today, the craft swung by Mars and snapped the above image. According to the ESA website, Rosetta’s lander took the picture less than five minutes before closest approach to the Red Planet.

What I really enjoy about the image is, quite simply, the spacecraft. Yeah, the Mars rovers show up in their own images, but something about seeing the spacecraft in the foreground, Mars just 1,000 kilometers behind… It offers a distinct perspective that most such images lack. I don’t suppose it was conscious decision (rather that the Rosetta lander couldn’t image Mars without getting some hardware getting in the way), but I find it very effective. Yes, we actually build these things and send them into space!

It makes me look forward to 2014, when we’ll get data back about the comet, too.

A Minor Blow-Up

A minor gripe about the European Southern Observatory’s press coverage of Supernova 1987A. I feel compelled to blog about SN 1987A because today marks the twentieth anniversary of its discovery.

Honestly, I appreciate ESO putting a graph on their web page of images. Even better, it includes color-coded dots with decent labels! But the good news stops there. Two major problems here: the label on the ordinate and the caption for the image.

Why say simply “V Magnitude” when you could add “Brightness” and make the message more clear?

And why cut the caption so short? “Light curve of the Supernova 1987A over a long period of time. Characteristic phases in the evolution of the supernova are indicated.” I mean, “a long period of time”? Just say “more than a decade” (so people don’t have to do the division in their heads). And how ’bout explaining some of those “characteristic phases” while you’re at it? I’d like to know a little more about radioactive tails; they sound kinda interesting.

Anyway, happy birthday, SN 1987A! And many happy returns…

Tools and Language

Seed Magazine’s Daily Zeitgeist pointed to this post on the Frontal Cortex blog, which is where I found the video I link to above.

Um, wow.

Visualizing another person’s mental state is basically impossible; one can only approach by suggestion and by analogy. And the eight-minute video above, created by an autistic woman, presents a deeply moving and profound glimpse into her world—a statement that is at once scientific, aesthetic, political, and passionate. I had read textbook descriptions of autism that I thought gave me a superficial understanding of the condition, but Amanda’s video transformed my thinking.

Furthermore, the use of (in fact, reliance upon) technology fascinates me. It provides the toolset that allows Amanda not just to create, but also to communicate, via everything from voice synthesis to widescale distribution online. It thrills me to think that we live in a time when such things can happen, when silenced people can speak, when otherwise unarticulated ideas can find expression.

Red, Hot, and Blue

A simple enough image today—the cover of the 2007 Edmund Optics catalog. I saw a post on the Cosmic Variance blog about this image and decided that, although it’s a bit of a stretch, this does in fact touch upon “visualizing science.” Sadly, in a way that reflects poorly on the state of gender parity within certain disciplines.

What’s truly disheartening about the image is that the people who published it seem completely oblivious to what it says. I yammer on about visual language all the time, typically in the context of scientific vocabularies that can obscure or distort intended meanings. But here’s visual language of a different sort—imagery with an unintended cultural meaning that also says something about science, or at least the cultural practice of science.

If you feel inclined to write to Edmund Optics about the cover (and I encourage you to do so), take a look at the aforementioned Cosmic Variance post, which includes email addresses and such.

Die Fledermaus

Today’s Science Times, under the heading “Science Illustrated” (which I’ve never noticed before), links to a large and luxurious graphic about bat flight. Would I be continuing too strongly in my positive trend from last week to pay my compliments right off the, um, bat?

This “visualizing science” stuff seems to be catching on. Or am I really just starting to pay attention? What with Leonard Lopate talking about sci viz on his radio program and a Gordon Conference devoted to “Visualization in Science and Education” coming up, it seems that the visual conveyance of scientific concepts is really catching on!

I think the New York Times graphic demonstrates how helpful a graphic designer can be in arranging and structuring a vast quantity of information in an aesthetically pleasing and memorable fashion. I looked at the webpage of Jose Iriarte-Diaz, which features links to both pictures and videos of the wee mammals in the wind tunnel (including the image above). Very well done for a researcher’s page! But take a look at that Times graphic. Edward Tufte would be proud.

(One thing that didn’t make it into the newspaper, however, were any photos of the adorable little critters! A loss, minor but not insignificant.)

A parting thought or two (or three)…

Buried deep in a Brown University press release on bat locomotion, I noticed the line, “The video images are impressive, but to truly understand how bats fly, the researchers needed to make the invisible visible.” Interestingly, this very concept comes up repeatedly in discussions about “visualizing science.” How does one communicate visually what one cannot actually see, particularly when so much contemporary scientific discovery relies on data beyond our immediate sensory perception?

And now, two random intersections with this topic of flight, simply to assert a bit of Jungian acausal parallelism. Seeing the bat pictures immediately reminded me of a sculpture I had just noticed at New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong Airport, evidently based on Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter, which of course had a bat wing as its partial inspiration. Furthermore, I just last night read a passage in Benjamin Woolley’s impressive biography of Ada Lovelace, Bride of Science, describing Lovelace’s adolescent fascination with flight. “Effect without a cause / Sub-atomic laws, scientific pause / Synchronicity…”

Nursing Old Wounds

I just finished reading Chances Are… by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan, which made reference to Florence Nightingale’s statistical diagrams, one of which I reproduce above.

One might think of Florence Nightingale as some kind of übernurse, but she also made significant contributions to the understanding of infectious diseases—and importantly, a statistical approach to understanding disease. In the diagram above, time progresses clockwise around the polar plot, from April 1854 to March 1855; the bluish-green area represents the deaths from “Preventable or Mitigable Zymotic diseases,” the pinkish-red area the deaths from wounds, and the greyish-black area deaths from all other causes.

Honestly, the diagram has become noteworthy for its uniqueness. People didn’t actually rush out and begin producing pie-like charts of this ilk, but some designers have looked upon Nightingale’s graphics with some admiration, and indeed, the fact that she chose to represent the information graphically says quite a bit.

Interestingly, I had just run across Nightingale’s work in I. Bernard Cohen’s final book, The Triumph of Numbers: How Counting Shaped Modern Life. A pithier, slimmer, and more colorful exercise than the aforementioned volume, albeit one left unfinished at the time of his death.

In general, the Kaplans’ book promises a bit more than it manages to deliver, but it’s a thoughtful discussion on the topic of probability and its intersection with science, thought, and everyday life. They manage to make connections to topics as varied as law, insurance, and global warming, while bringing in the work of mathematicians as varied as Pascal and Kolmogorov, Quetelet and Bjerknes. My greatest complaint? A lack of footnotes, appendices, and references: the complex and often obscure topics could benefit from each and every one.

As a final note, I’ll mention, too, that the image above comes from a “timeline of timelines” that I found in Cabinet magazine online. Interesting stuff…