More Abstraction

Okay, I give up.

No, not with the blog, in spite of my lousy track record posting lately. I give up trying to figure out the image above…

I mean, it’s pretty and all, but what does it mean? I’m so baffled that I won’t even complain about the pseudocolor (indeed, I’m quite fond of orange). I read through the press release and the accompanying caption (which seems to have been removed recently), but… Huh?

Here’s the caption, BTW: “Spectroscopic image showing the microwave-frequency magnetic resonances of an array of parallel, metallic thin film nanowires (‘stripes’). The peak in the center is due to resonances occurring at the stripe edges while the strong horizontal bar is due to resonances in the body of the stripes.”

Since I’m trained in astronomy, my tendency is to read frequency along the horizontal axis, which would imply a peak of some sort at a particular frequency, but that doesn’t feel right, somehow. Maybe it’s actually a spectrogram of some sort, with the horizontal axis representing the spatial extent of the nanowires?

Whatever the image tries to show, the real question is: why confuse people with it?

Ball and Stick, Apple and Orange

Science Daily reported on research from Rice University that had actually appeared in a press release from Rice last week. Go figure. The new article includes the above image, however, which could be perceived as an improvement (or not) over the text-only copy from Rice.

A quick glance at the image caused a sudden nag, and I started to browse on before I figured out what was bothering me.

The nanotube should be made of atoms, right? Presumably those little grey shiny balls in the molecular model above. But interior to the nanotube, we see brightly-colored (one might be tempted to call them radioactive-looking) blobs that look like a scanning-electron micrograph of something-or-other. But these are supposed to be atoms! Specifically, astatine atoms, which should be a fair bit bigger than shown here.

This isn’t a big deal, I suppose, but it’s oddly distracting. First off, they use different visual vocabulary to represent the same kind of thing: atoms are shown in two distinctly different ways in the above image. Secondly (and I know I’m going out on a limb here), the image they choose perhaps even vaguely suggests cancerous cells… And given that the press release concerns using nanotubes to treat cancer, that’s potentially problematic.

Molecular Dominoes

A press release from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) uses the above image to describe “the growth of a layer of molecules as they gradually cover the surface of a small silicon rectangle.” Unfortunately, the image doesn’t seem to illustrate much at all.

As usual, I’ll quote the entire caption… “Schematic of the monolayer self-assembly process studied by the NIST/NCSU team. The silicon substrate is approximately 1 x 5 cm in dimensions. The source (left) is a mixture of organosilane (OS) molecules and parafin oil (to control the evaporation rate.) The whole system is enclosed in a Petri dish. The concentration of OS molecules is higher near the source and the ordering process initiates near this region. Molecules behind the advancing self-assembly front are relatively ordered, while molecules ahead of the front are engulfed and incorporated as the front reaches them. The molecules at the leading edge of the front are less ordered and this region becomes broader as the front advances—this is the key phenomenon measured in the experiment.”

Um, right.

Basically, to illustrate such a phenomenon, you’re probably better off using a series (i.e., at least a pair) of images to show, for example, an “advancing self-assembly front.” As it stands (or, in the case of the molecules on the right-hand side, leans), the image doesn’t really reveal the process very well.

Furthermore, if you read the accompanying press release, you find that the actual observations show irregularities in the advancing front, with variations in density that the simple model does not explain. So although the illustration receives top billing with the press release, it doesn’t actually show us what’s interesting about the press release!

An AVI available with the release claims to show “a mean field reaction-diffusion model of the monolayer self-assembly process,” but I couldn’t get the movie to play on my Macintosh.

Motionless Conveyor Belt

Today’s image comes from a press release telling us that “Optoelectronic Tweezers Push Nanowires Around” (whether we like it or not, I suppose).

I’m minutes away from attending a symposium here in Edmonton, Alberta, so this will have to be brief. But I was struck, the moment I saw the above image, that I felt as though I knew what was going on. It’s analogous to a board game in which pieces are moved along a path; the thing is, it’s probably even more analogous to the cartoons used to describe a charge-coupled device (CCD), with which I’m all too familiar.

So my question is how familiar this iconography would be to somebody unfamiliar with computers and CCDs and such. Does it immediately call to mind games of parcheesi and thus convey its message clearly and concisely? Or does it in fact communicate little or nothing? The caption explains that it’s an “image of an ‘optical conveyer belt’ in which particles can be trapped while moving under the influence of electric fields,” which is probably exactly the right amount of information to convey the essence of what’s happening (in spite of misspelling “conveyor”). But what kind of mental image is the reader left with?

I guess I feel as though I’m coming at the image with a lot of (possibly erroneous) information—about electronics, about how CCDs operate, which makes me read a certain amount into the image as it’s presented. I’m curious what someone without my background (or biases) sees in it.

Anyone care to offer their $0.02?

Spheres in a Plane

Yeah, I remember those long nights at my college paper (The Cornell Daily Sun, if you’re curious) when we’d be laying out a page and recognize the need for a photo to fill space and look pretty and make the design more appealing. And, well, sometimes the photo we’d choose would be, um, kind of a stretch.

Kinda like the image above.

It accompanies a press release on computer simulations of atomic processes in nanomaterials, accompanied by a delightfully mystifying caption: “This three-dimensional atomic simulation shows the absorption of a line defect (caused by an impinging screw) by an existing twin boundary (green spheres) in nano-twinned copper.”

Um, huh? Does that mean anything? I honestly think that someone at MIT decided they needed a picture to go with the text, even if it’s meaningless. Twin boundary? It’s explained as “an abrupt internal interface each side of which is a precise mirror reflection of atoms of the other side” in the press release. But how is that shown as spheres exactly? Anyway, problem piles atop problem, leaving a lack of clarity in its wake.

Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly Away Home

The above image can be found on an American Institute of Physics webpage that accompanies a brief press relase about nanotube repair. (Amusingly enough, the HTML for the first of the above links seems not to have been changed from the previous Physics News graphic, so it reads “U.S. High-School Enrollment in Physics Classes.”)

Anyway, the caption explains: “The microscopic behavior of a carbon nanotube with a tear resembles somewhat the motion of a ladybug. The rip in the nanotube fabric, caused by heating stressing the nanotube, is sewn up in a moving process in which carbon a pentagon-heptagon structure propagates along the tube.”

Huh? I mean, I think I understand what’s happening, but what does it have to do with ladybugs? I mean, any more than it does an amoeba or something? Cute picture; unhelpful analogy.

I kinda like the filmstrip holes indicating the passage of time, but I wonder how biased that is toward people of a certain age. Do they use film in classes any more? Have most kids seen a movie projector, let alone an actual strip of film?

Oh, by the way, enrollment in high-school physics classes is up!

Nano Goodness

This is a quickie. I’m attending the Image and Meaning 2.3 workshop. A whole group of people gabbing about imagery and its interpretation! I’m in heaven, as you might imagine.

Anyway, the picture above comes from an NIST press release about nanotechnology. Now, forgive me if I note that the image doesn’t seem to say much. I don’t think it needs to.

The image acts basically as an icon. Honestly, it seems to have nothing to do with the topic (an efficient means of testing nanosamples for quality), but hey, it looks nice! And, I dunno, I can’t really hold that against whoever selected the image. Of course, maybe I’m just being kind because they included a scale with the image.

Allow me to quote the caption in its entirety… “A new NIST method for rapidly assessing the quality of carbon nanotubes was evaluated in part by comparing the results to electron micrographs, which revealed uneven composition such as large bundles of nanotubes and impurities such as metallic particles. (Color added.)”

Kudos to them for the “color added” comment! That’s a black-and-white image, kids, so be thankful they’re ’fessing up that it’s nothing more. And also note that no direct connection is drawn in the caption to the content of the press release. Truth in advertising.