Antarctic Mysteries

An article in today’s New York Times describes new websites from NASA and from USGS, showing high-resolution imagery of Antarctica. Check it out now before it all melts away!

I have some quibbles with the operation of the USGS site (the Java applet behaves a little oddly, provides effectively no information about the location displayed, and shows a map of Antarctica surrounded entirely with white), but it holds promise. And the NASA site has some spiffy stuff…

The image above comes from the “Antarctic Mysteries” game, which presents several unidentified photos for the viewer to identify. As a “game,” well, it’s not the most compelling, but I imagine I’m not the only person who looks at the grid of pictures, wonders what such-and-such might be, then clicks on the link to find out. Abstract and unusual, the images seem quite compelling.

What I truly admire, however, is the little extra info that the site provides about each image. For example, the feature above is about 25 kilometers across, located at 79°S, 80°W. Even better, the description includes a note: “This image appears darker than bright white snow because it has been enhanced to make slight contrasts in the snow more visible.” Excellent! Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? One itsy-bitsy little extra line of text? Good work, NASA!

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.”

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…

Bent Light, Broken Caption

Too much to blog about! I’m getting backlogged… And just to complicate matters, here’s a new graphic from the European Sapce Agency that’s too much to pass up.

The image above shows Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, as seen in a slightly odd mix of visible and infrared light (if you really must know). The white line beneath Titan shows a “light curve,” which represents the intensity of light on the vertical axis, time on the horizontal axis, indicating the brightness of the star measured as it “passed behind” Titan through a trick of rotational and orbital dynamics in our solar system. The dimming of the star as it passes behind Titan reveals information about the moon’s atmosphere, and the peak of light in the center shows that the atmosphere acts like a lens, focussing light from the opposite side of the planet. The press release goes into some detail about how much we can learn from such observations, right down to predicting a bumpy ride for a spacecraft!

Now, I won’t claim my explanation above as the be-all-end-all, but I think the caption on ESA’s page doesn’t offer enough information about what’s going on in the still image. It never explains the term “light curve,” for example. I understand the reluctance to put words on the graphic (not so much for NASA, but for ESA serving a multilingual constituency), but the caption should compensate.

The animation of the graphic shows what’s happening much better, and I imagine the still image will make sense to people once they’ve seen the animation. N.B. that the caption for the animation is the same length as the caption for the still image—a stylistic requirement, I’m guessing. But the still image, with so much less information in it and so much more information implied by it, requires more verbiage to support it.

What a Drag

Recently, commenting on images seems to mean complaining about captions. How sad. But here I go again…

The image above accompanies a press release on a three percent reduction in upper-atmosphere density by the year 2017. The caption for the image reads simply, “The outermost layer of the atmosphere will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade.” Which is all well and good (I mean, the caption is all well and good), except that it leaves one wondering what the satellite is doing in the image. Perhaps the caption could be expanded slightly to read, “The outermost layer of the atmosphere, which extends as high as some satellite orbits, will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade.” Just as a first pass.

A little later in the press release, we find out that “lower density in the thermosphere, which is the highest layer of the atmosphere, would reduce the drag on satellites in low Earth orbit, allowing them to stay airborne longer.” Well, golly, that makes an even better caption: “The outermost layer of the atmosphere will lose three percent of its density over the coming decade, allowing satellites to stay aloft longer.” (Somehow, “airborne” seems inappropriate when applied to a satellite.)

And while I’m discussing language instead of images, what’s up with the headline for this press release? “Scientists Predict Carbon Dioxide Emissions Will Reduce Density of Earth’s Outermost Atmosphere by 2017.” Um, well, actually, emissions have already reduced the density, and they will most likely continue to reduce the denisty long after 2017. Somewhat deceptive.

Colorful flutter-by

Featured on the EurekAlert news service (but inexplicably, not on the GeorgiaTech site that supposedly ran the story), I found an intriguing article on adjusting the color of butterfly wings. The above image shows the effect of depositing different thicknesses of aluminum oxide on a wing, thereby changing its color. Spiffy.

The caption for the image also strikes me as rather spiffy: short and to the point. It reads, “An optical microscope image of coated butterfly wing scales show color differences related to the thickness of the deposited alumina.” Certainly enough info for me, since I know that “nm” means “nanometer,” which presumably refers to the thickness of the aluminum oxide, also mentioned in the image, albeit by its chemical formula (but at least I know that “Al” means “aluminum,” so I felt comfortable extrapolating from the caption). In short, it strikes me as an excellent caption for the scientifically literate, perhaps not so hot for a general audience.

Great picture, regardless. And the rest of the press release is sufficiently complicated that the caption really just serves as a litmus test for further comprehension, so my nit-picking is probably irrelevant.

The press release also contains the mildly amusing line, “The artificial wing scales produced by the researchers also reflect bluish light, though the color is of slightly longer wavelength than that of the original butterfly.” At least it’s amusing if you think of “original butterfly” as a unit of distance, as I did (probably because I was still finishing my first cup of coffee). A very long wavelength, indeed.

Follow the Arrows

The above image comes from a Vanderbilt Medical Center Reporter article about mathematical modeling the behavior of tumors. Aside from the minuscule size (they seem to have no larger version online), there’s at least one bizarre omission.

In case you can’t read the teeny-tiny text in the image, it says, in clockwise order from top left: “tumor,” “tumor slice,” “tumor in lattice,” “tumor cells,” “mathematical representation of tumor growth and invasion,” and… Nothing. The last image in the series has no label. From the article, you can glean that the final result is a prediction of tumor growth, but it does seem as though that could be directly addressed in the teeny-tiny graphic.

Or maybe the message is that “mathematical representation of tumor growth and invasion” leads to… Pretty flower-like pictures? Small explosions? Low-res graphics and trapped white space?