Building Towers in the Tempest

The teeny-tiny image above comes from a NASA press release about a energy flow near the eye of a hurricane. A high-resolution TIFF of the same inexplicably eliminates the captions, leaving one with an unlabelled, multicolored, meaningless image—my favorite!

The image above bears some resemblance to a previous visualization of Hurricane Bonnie, but I’m actually not going to complain about this awful image presented with a press release of some interest. Instead, I’m going to call attention the remarkable new visualization that supports the above story. The full video (at several resolutions) and numerous stills (at resolutions of 320×180 or 144 times larger, but none in between) can also be downloaded from Goddard’s Science Visualization Studio website.

The full piece does a respectable job of explaining the whole “tower cloud” concept shown in the above image. I recommend watching it. The visuals and narration mesh nicely, telling a pretty good story. Furthermore, if you’re interested in how such media pieces come into being, you can take a look at an illustrated storyboard for the video. Well done!

Tools and Language

Seed Magazine’s Daily Zeitgeist pointed to this post on the Frontal Cortex blog, which is where I found the video I link to above.

Um, wow.

Visualizing another person’s mental state is basically impossible; one can only approach by suggestion and by analogy. And the eight-minute video above, created by an autistic woman, presents a deeply moving and profound glimpse into her world—a statement that is at once scientific, aesthetic, political, and passionate. I had read textbook descriptions of autism that I thought gave me a superficial understanding of the condition, but Amanda’s video transformed my thinking.

Furthermore, the use of (in fact, reliance upon) technology fascinates me. It provides the toolset that allows Amanda not just to create, but also to communicate, via everything from voice synthesis to widescale distribution online. It thrills me to think that we live in a time when such things can happen, when silenced people can speak, when otherwise unarticulated ideas can find expression.


I just finished reading Robert P. Crease’s The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science. The image above comes from the experiment Crease describes in his chapter “The Quantum Interference of Single Electrons.” A related editorial from Physics World, the same publication for which Crease wrote his original articles about “beautiful experiments,” goes into greater detail about the double-slit experiment, and the Wikipedia article on the same topic does a better job explaining than I care to attempt.

Indeed, the story behind the images above (easily read as a sequential series by people familiar with comics) is long and complicated. It has to do with the so-called “wave-particle duality” of electrons, which basically means that, under certain circumstances, electrons’ behavior is described by the mathematics of waves, while under other circumstances, we can think of them as particles. (They’re neither: “wave” and ”particle” are simply two mental images that humans rely on to visualize such behaviors.)

At any rate, the sequential images reveal the build up, over time, of an interference pattern between individual electrons passing through a double slit of sorts. Our intuition of electrons as particles runs right up against their behavior as waves in this case, because the individual electrons that form the images above slowly build up into an interference pattern, the likes of which we expect from waves.

In case all this gives you a slight headache (as well it might), you can check out a couple of films that describe the phenomenon quite beautifully…

Crease references a 14-minute movie from 1974, available from the Italian Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems, which tells the story carefully, beginning with ripples in a fountain and proceeding through light interference to electron interference. A word of warning, however: the movie files clock in around 150MB. (Nosing around the parent directory yields links to better-quality versions of the film, BTW, although the files sizes are even greater.) For those with a bit of physics background, the film succeeds in providing a good sense of what’s going on (with extensive use of animated diagrams), although the visualization of the actual data leaves a bit to be desired.

Fear not, however! A web page from the research and development group at Hitachi also describes the double-slit experiment, and it links to a page with movies, including a 10.4MB MPEG demonstrating the accumulation of electrons much more clearly than the 1974 film. But hey, they had 15 years to work out the kinks.

So where am I going with all this? Well, I found my response to the various media rather interesting. I majored in physics (well, astronomy, technically, but our slogan was, “more physics than physics majors”), so I knew the story the images were supposed to be telling. The sequential series above is certainly more than enough for me to get the gist. But actually watching the videos introduced some challenges: in particular, the limitation of the imaging capabilities in 1974 makes seeing the phenomenon tricky, but combined with the compression artifacts (e.g., the blockiness caused by the MPEG-4 compression), it starts to take some imagination to reconstruct the experiment in the mind’s eye. Thus, the images “say” only what we’re prepared to “hear.” The story I extract is the story I already know.

The Hitachi video pretty well circumvents the data problem with the 1974 film, however, so taken together, the narrative of the folder film plus the data representation of the latter tell a decent story. I think. But I’ve heard this one before.

By JoVE!

[Image taken offline.]

The Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) makes its debut later this week, although some videos are already online. JoVE presents videos of (presumably common) advanced laboratory experiments, to help graduate students understand how experiments are done properly.

As a less-than-gifted laboratory kind of guy (although I can solder really well), I can understand the need. A Nature article about JoVE begins with the story of Cemille Guldal, a graduate student at Princeton, who claims that, &ldquoFor about a year, my boss thought I was completely incompetent because I couldn’t replicate those beautiful published pictures.” Turns out she’d been scrubbing away surface yeast instead of washing it under running water. Ooops.

The above image is a snapshot from a page on “Monitoring actin disassembly with timelapse microscopy,” which is approximately as exciting to watch as it sounds; however, I have no doubt that I’d nod off more quickly if I had to read directions for the experiment. Interestingly, the video ends with a cartoon of what’s taking place—having seen reality, one then needs to superimpose a means of integrating the experience into the mental constrcuts provided by your textbooks and other instruction. What better mental stand-in than a diagram?

Unfortunately, I don’t see a way to step through the videos on the site. I dug around the source code and found the video file, which I downloaded, resulting in a WMV file I couldn’t play (I use a Mac, of course, but I do have the appropriate software, so, I dunno…).

As I look at the above image, it reminds me a little of the one I posted yesterday. Hmmm. At least, they’re the two images I’ve presented thusfar that are most like abstract art.