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…”

CG Takes Flight

A press release from Brown University describes the evolution of structures required for flight. Turns out that a specific ligament (labeled “AHL” in the above image) provides stabilization to maintain a gliding posture in pigeons—computer modeling permitted the calculation of the necessary forces and also resulted in a pretty spiffy image to illustrate the findings. It actually took me a moment to see the symmetry in the image, but as soon as I “read” the pigeon’s beak pointing to the right, it snapped into place. Nice work.

The caption for the above reads, entertainingly enough, “Using computer modeling, treadmills and the fossil record, researchers have shown that the acrocoracohumeral ligament (AHL), a short band of tissue that connects the humerus to the shoulder joint in birds, was a critical element in the evolution of flight.” The treadmills, BTW, came into play when alligators (close but obviously flightless relatives of the birds) were x-rayed while walking; researchers found that muscles, not ligaments, supported the shoulder. The fossil record seems to indicate that the ligament structures evolved gradually.

Also, it’s worth noting that the image is credited to the researcher himself, David Baier, who seems to have recently gotten his Ph.D. It’s great to see imagery coming directly from the person doing the work. The Brown University Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Newsletter from May 2004 describes some related work and makes mention of Baier.