Visualizing Subjectivity

An article in today’s Science Times describes the artwork of Anne Adams, who suffered from frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which effectively rewires the brain in a way that can produce compulsive behaviors ranging from shoplifting to increased creativity. Adams, as you may guess, exhibited signs of the latter, increasing her output (and some might say her innovativeness) as an artist.

Some of her drawings and paintings appear on a web page from the UCSF Medical Center (“UCSF” refers to the University of California, San Francisco, BTW, so this is a shout out to my new homies) as part of the Patient Art Gallery of their Memory and Aging Center. The title of the above image is “Migrane,” which got me to thinking…

While it might be a little overblown to equate Adams’s drawings with a totally different condition, I nonetheless immediately thought of the effects of Charles Bonnet syndrome, when a person’s increasing blindness can occasionally result in vivid hallucinations—resulting from brain stimuli “bleeding over” into the visual cortex, if I can be forgiven for such a slapdash description.

I first read about Charles Bonnet syndrome in V S Ramachandran’s brilliant Phantoms in the Brain, which has much to recommend it if you’re at all interested in brain physiology—hateful as it is to think of one’s grey matter as, well, matter. As I recall, Ramachandran suggests that some of James Thurber’s later drawings may have been partly inspired by the hallucinations he experienced. Of course, I read the book about nine years ago (and it currently sits, unpacked and unavailable for review, in a box until I get my new office), so my recollection may have suffered.

The folks at Damn Interesting had a damn interesting entry about the syndrome earlier this year.

At any rate, I often like to talk about the subjectivity of science visualization, but these examples take subjectivity to the ultimate level: the completely subjective experience of an individual’s brain state.

(Oh, and happy birthday, Mom!)

How Do You See Invisible Germs?

Sorry for the gap in posts, but the last few days have been a little hectic. And I suppose it’s appropriate that I seem to be coming down with a bit of a cold as I decide to write about The Gospel of Germs by Nancy Tomes. I just finished Tomes’s book last week, and it inspired me to think about how the invisible is visualized in a popular context. Her perceptive and illuminating book describes the acceptance and interpretation of the germ theory of disease around the turn of the last century—from advertising to anti-tuberculosis societies, from labor unions to Listerine. Fascinating stuff.

Because 19th-century microscopes didn’t really allow for photography (I tried searching for when the first photographs were taken through a microscope, to no avail, but I’ll update you if I learn anything), drawings of microbeasties had to stand in for actual photos. Of course, the same was true of most imagery that appeared in a newspaper or magazine of the day—it all had to be represented in etchings or lithographs (the first newspaper photograph appeared in 1880, although I admit that my source is a little off the beaten track). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find images online to help me illustrate the concept in the context of that time period. But the above drawing, which comes from a web page about “Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History” from the University of Califoria Irvine, underscores the basic idea.

I have previously commented on the unreliability of drawings compared to less subjective means of recording data, but Tomes’s book and the drawing above raise another issu: when the subjective role of illustration actually takes precedence over its objective goals. The point of the cartoon is not to communicate what a germ looks like—instead, it simply stands in for an unseen critter that obviously poses some kind of threat to us. It looks like a nasty bug. Indeed, some of the illustrations that appear in Tomes’s book use the same visual vocabulary—the insect-like features, the hairiness—to communicate the same thing (albeit not in such a cartoonish manner). Look at the iconography that surrounds the ever-popular Airborne® health formula, with its colorful, slightly creepy but mostly effete and harmless “bugs.” A little bit of the 19th-century threat remains, but the slightly bowdlerized images allow us to view the microscopic world as something fundamentally under our control.

Nowadays, when the variety of imagery available to us via microscopy, we can think of the microscopic world as incredibly detailed, fluorescently colored, or perhaps confusingly abstract, a cartoon like the one above is easily interpreted for what it is. But when an image represents a new concept, it’s all too easy for it to become literalized. I don’t know how many people at the end oft he 19th century perceived newspaper and magazine ad illustrations as true depictions of the (quite threatening) microscopic world, but surely the less cartoonish, albeit similarly demonizing, illustrations had an effect.

Quarks of Many Colors

I have to say, I’m kinda floored by this one.

The above image is associated with a December 2004 press release entitled “Jefferson Lab’s journey into the nucleus” that I ran across completely by accident. The non-animated version caught my eye, in part because of the caption: “An artist’s impression of a quark being struck by a virtual photon (a). As the quark propagates through nuclear matter, it loses energy by emitting gluons (b) and creating pairs of quarks and anti-quarks (c). As the system begins to return to equilibrium, two-quark systems (pions) are formed (d).” Admirably, it starts right off with the phrase “artist’s impression.” And quite an impressionistic impression at that!

The caption that appears with the above, animated image (and, inexplicably, the title “Simple Experimental Simulation”) could use a similar qualification, in my opinion: “This movie illustrates the action inside the nucleus of a deuterium atom containing a proton and a neutron, each with three quarks. An electron strikes a quark inside a proton, passing energy to the quark before the electron bounces back. The quark now has so much energy ‘stuffed’ into it, it creates a cascade of new particles as it flies out of the proton. The result is two new, two-quark particles.”

First off, I have to note that having the GIF loop creates a problem, namely that the linear process of the reaction is shown blending back into itself. Awkward to say the least. Initially, I was inclined to blame my browser, but then I took a closer look at the file and noted that it seemed to be designed to loop, and indeed, a quick check with Adobe ImageReady revealed it to indeed be designed as a loop. Yikes! Ideally, there would at least be a few frames of black between the end and the beginning of the sequence, but to design it to loop continuously is highly misleading.

Of course, there’s plenty of misleading aspects to this representation. Basically, what we’re looking at is a Feynmann diagram, which is normally shown as a tinkertoy-type diagram of lines and squiggles (tinkertoys and springs, I guess). The imagery above includes a lot more information—colors represent different types of quarks, for example—which strikes me as rather clever and quite aesthetically pleasing, but…

What troubles me about the image is that it’s using a somewhat representational style to illustrate a fundamentally abstract concept. The almost biological quality of the pions slithering off toward the end may be rather striking, but what does it mean? In terms of communicating the underlying concepts, well, I hate to sound boring, but a more straightforward approach may be better suited. I admire Jefferson Lab for trying something different, but caution is required—or at least a cautionary note!

The initial caption, clearly indicating “artist’s impression” from the get-go, addresses my cautionary concerns, but it’d be even better if there were a brief essay by the artist involved. What choices did he or she make in creating the image? What do the colors mean? What motivated the somewhat biological look of the illustration?

In a medium better known for its objectivity than its artistry, a diagram may deserve a colorful interpretation, but as always, the subjective layer may add unintended meanings.