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.

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…