Visualizing on the Radio

Today’s Leonard Lopate “Please Explain” focused on scientific visualization. (The image above is just a sample from an accompanying slideshow, heavily biased as it is toward medical visualizations. I happen to like it more than some of the others, but more on it later.) Lopate had two guests: Graham Johnson, a certified medical illustrator, and Felice Frankel, to whom I’ve referred previously and who started the Image and Meaning conference that’s come up previously as well.

My favorite exchange…

Lopate: “The image stay with us the rest of our life until somebody tells us that’s no longer true.”

Frankel: “And you know what? Even if they tell you it’s no longer true, that doesn’t matter…’

Exactly! Images are extremely powerful, and they become stand-ins for concepts. When an image truly settles into our brain and we know what information we can and cannot extract from it, it acts as a useful stand-in for concepts and ideas. Misinterpreted, however, or trusted too much, an image can become very misleading. Of course, reality can be misleading, too, which is why medical illustrators have kept their jobs even in the age of photography. As Johnson explained, “Our job is to pull out pertinent information and subdue the ancillary information so that we can tell a story—a particular story.” Well put.

So if you get a chance, download the MP3 and take a listen.

The above image has a great caption, BTW, in terms of presenting it in context… “Membrane Structure and Function: Used as a section overview, this figure summarizes the content of five chapters that describe the anatomy and physiology of lipid bilayers and their resident proteins. Here, the ‘water fearing’ chains of a lipid bilayer separate the cytoplasm of a cell (beige background-bottom) from the outside world (light blue background-top).”

With that explanation, I feel confident in liking the illustration even more. I even want to read the chapters!

Just as an aside, Lopate also made reference to the newly-opened Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. He mentioned the design of the dioramas in the hall, the attention to detail and attempt to achieve realism. Nice to hear, since my coworker Carter and I tend to see our work on the Museum’s space shows as continuing that fine tradition. It really is a form of science visualization. (And if you’re interested in learning more about the painstaking efforts to create realistic nature dioramas, take a look at Stephen Quinn’s Windows on Nature, which came out less than a year ago. Brilliant stuff.)

Hmmm. I’ve been accused of being too upbeat this week, for which I apologize. I’ll try to find something to gripe about in the next day or so. Until then…

Small Bodies, Simple Graph

The image above accompanies Steve Soter’s Scientific American article about the new definition of planets. The image of the solar system deals with the typical issues of scale and two-dimensionality adequately enough, but I really like the little graph just below the center. It shows Soter’s proposed μ values for various solar system bodies, which gives a more mathematical expression to the concept of a planet “clearing its orbit.” (Note that the scale of the bar graph is exponential!)

Now compare the graph to Figure 3 in the astro-ph version of the article. Whereas the astro-ph version uses a standard scientific convention (plotting two quantities and revealing μ as a diagonal line on the plot), the Scientific American version translates the concept into simple visual vernacular. Excellent work.

Rotating Helix

I’m takin’ it easy for Lincoln’s Birthday (he was a distant relation, actually, so I deserve it). Look! A Spitzer image! And no, I’m not just logrolling for my friend Robert. I took a look at today’s press release, and I couldn’t find anything else to blog about, then…

I take a closer look. I thought I’d link to the Hubble Space Telescope picture of the Helix and make some kind of comparison. But when I skipped between the two images, I noticed that the two seemed to be rotated 90° with respect to one another. Odd. For a quick double-check, I took a look at Rob Gendler’s (as always gorgeous) picture of the Helix, and it seems to match Hubble’s.

Here, I’ll save you the trouble and link to an essentially equivalent picture (with the Hubble color scheme) from Travis Rector:

Yep, it’s rotated. Bizarre!

I mean, honestly, it’s not a big deal. But it might be considered a little confusing not to have imagery from the NASA Great Observatories lining up properly.

Otherwise, I was just going to note that it’s interesting how the exterior of the nebula shifts from red-yellow in the Hubble image to blue-green in the Spitzer view: purely a matter of convention, of course, since images are typically mapped by wavelength, with shorter-wavelength light being mapped to (ironically) cool colors and longer-wavelength light to (equally ironically) warm colors. The red haze at the center of the Helix in the Spitzer image indicates a source of small, warmed particles—interpreted to be colliding comets in the aforementioned press release.

The Hubble site offers a “tour” of the Helix, which is quite nice. Perhaps we&rsquo’ll be treated to a different tour in a future interactive—one which shows the nebula not just in optical light, but in its intriguing infrared emission as well.

Stereo(tactic) Photography

Inspiration for today’s image comes from the Merriam-Webster “Word of the Day” today: stereotactic. (Because I subscribe to “Word of the Day” via email, I receive such tidbits on a daily basis. What better blogging inspiration than one’s inbox?)

As I read the definition, I felt that it cried out for an image, and sadly, Merriam-Webster doesn’t indulge its readers (at least its non-paying readers) with such niceties, so I did a quick Google image search. Most of the top results look fundamentally like the image above, but it immediately attracted my attention.

The image comes from the University of Arizona’s Biomedical Communications page of medical photography. It’s categorized as “Illustrative Photography,” along with images as varied as fall leaves, a sunset, and a palm tree silhouette. Ignoring those others for a moment, however, I have to express admiration for the “stereotactic” image.

I like it because none of the other drawings or diagrams I saw gave me any (or at least much) more information than I get from the above, although multiple views of the device could certainly make things clearer. The photo manages to illustrate its concept with remarkable clarity and aesthetic sense. Good work, in my opinion. Perhaps others’s opinions vary?

As an aside, I should add that the Wikipedia article on stereotactic devices actually has no illustrations whatsoever. I wonder if the U of A would put this one in the public domain…?

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.