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…

Inside the Image, from B to Z

A friend just pointed out to me that Apple has launched a feature called “Inside the Image” on its science site. Perhaps this is a prelude to the Image and Meaning 2.3 workshop being hosted at Apple HQ in Cupertino (I’m going to attend, actually), since the first “Inside the Image” is written by none other than Felice Frankel, who started Image and Meaning several years ago…

It looks like I now have some competition in the science imagery blogging game (although I don’t expect that the Apple page will updated on a near-daily basis), since the site is devoted to describing “how images made in laboratories and publications in science advance our understanding of the world around us.”

The first installment discusses the images above and contrasts the time-sequenced grid with a sequential display of the images played out as a film of sorts. The images show a Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction, a nonequilibrium chemical reaction that can result in oscillating patterns. Typical of Frankel’s imagery, the above distills the event with stunning elegance and simplicity, as if she had photographed the Platonic ideal of the experiment. (Compare Frankel’s elegant images to a gallery of others’ attempts at capturing the same sort of reaction. She’s good! Look for many more examples, along with detailed descriptions of how she works, in her book, Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image.)

Frankel ends her column with a rumination… “ If we study one frame next to another, as we may here in this grid, we might get to see ‘more’ in a way. We can compare one moment to the next and truly see more of what’s going on. See for yourself. Are you seeing the same information in both of these visual expressions of the B-Z Reaction?” Frankel’s tentative query suggests an argument from Susan Sontag’s (brilliant, I should note) On Photography, which privledges the still photographic image over the film or video. The difference lies in subject matter: Sontag addresses imagery rooted in the real world, in experiences not far removed from our day-to-day existence, whereas Frankel’s photography most often traffics in abstractions of highly specific and elusive scientific “moments.”

In short, I’m not sure that viewing the images side-by-side allows us to “compare one moment to the next and truly see more of what’s going on.” I have previously argued in this space that a sequence of images arranged as a film clip often permits one to see relationships that are easily missed when the same images are viewed in the comic-strip style above—admittedly, those were images showing the extremely subtle effect of lunar libration, but that kind of direct comparison, cross-fading from one still image to another, shown at the same scale, provides an excellent opprtunity to notice minute differences.

Furthermore, I would point out that a grid-like arrangement of images does not always indicate time-resolved data—a grid of MRI images, for example, often shows spatially-separated “slices” of a brain.

So there’s a place for both arrangements, but in general, I prefer to see time-sequenced images organized temporally, not spatially.

One final gripe. I’m also slightly annoyed by the incomplete information given about the reaction: we’re told that images were captured every 11 seconds, but then Frankel admits that she “edited the number of images down to 12 to create this grid in Photoshop on my Mac,” leaving me to wonder how long this reaction actually took. I mean, it’d be nice to know…