Cellular Derailment

The weekend is wrapping up, I just got back from a long weekend in Chicago (without too many delays), and friends I ran into on the subway complimented me on this blog… I should be able to find something nice to say. But no.

I came across the above image in a press release from the Berkeley lab entitled “Regulating the Nuclear Architecture of the Cell” (which has a lot to say about how genetic material clumps in the nucleus, none of which I will discuss because I’m going to obsess over the accompanying image). Even though the press release also presents a nice picture of mutant cell nuclei and a straightforward conceptual diagram on the topic, the article leads with the above image. Why, why, why, why? I beg of you, please tell me why.

I can guess why. I’d call it the “planetarian effect,” simply because that’s where I first encountered the problem, but I suppose it could be called the “press-release effect” or “the b-roll effect” or something similar. In the classic planetarium show, cobbled together by a staff (often at the last minute), one often encounters a line of reasoning to pair images with text: “Hey, we mention the Horsehead Nebula here, so where’s a picture of the Horsehead Nebula?” And the first image that you can find is one that, yeah, shows the Horsehead, but it’s kinda small, since the picture really shows all of Orion’s belt, but at least it’s got the Horsehead in it, so the slide gets dropped in the slide tray (or the JPEG added to the file), and you end up with an image in your show that potentially causes viewers to stop, wonder what it has to do with the narration in the show, and get distracted by imagery that should in fact be helping people understand what’s going on.

I’m guessing that’s what happened here. The thought process probably went along the lines of… “Oh, we’re doing a press release on the nucleolus, so we should have an image that shows what that is.” An absolutely correct and well-intended goal! But then you have to find a decent image. And IMNSHO, the above does not qualify. The relevant part of the caption reads, “The nucleolus (dark blue) resides within the cell nucleus, surrounded by heterochromatin.” Okay. But how does the image fit into the cell as a whole? Is the entire thing the nucleus or just the blurry, less-pixelated part? And how ’bout those heterochromatin? Maybe those are the little diamond-shaped blobs? (Take a look at the Wikipedia article on “cell nucleus” for a decent image of a cell, which might help answer some of those questions. It’s actually quite similar to the one above, but with better labels and clearer lines—and intriguingly similar color choices.)

If you’re lucky, an uninitiated reader will shake their head slightly and continue reading the article. But you run the risk of losing them entirely! All because a poor image distracts or confuses them. The best intentions can completely derail your audience.

Or maybe I’m just grumpy after dealing with Newark and O’Hare in the same day.