Graphic art lessons for scientists

Last week’s Meet the Author lec­ture at Snell Library fea­tured sci­ence pho­tog­ra­pher Felice Frankel of MIT. The lec­ture was con­nected to the Places and Spaces exhibit cur­rently on dis­play on Snell’s first and second floors.

Places and Spaces opened my eyes to an entire way of thinking that I hadn’t pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered. And as you may have noticed, I’ve become kind of obsessed with how people com­mu­ni­cate data to a lay audi­ence using visual tools.

And while Frankel’s talk was about sci­ence visu­al­iza­tion, she came at it from an entirely dif­ferent per­spec­tive. In their new book, Visual Strate­gies, Frankel and her co-​​author Angela DePace present sci­en­tists with a visual toolkit for rep­re­senting data and results in their own schol­arly work — research arti­cles, posters, you name it.

It’s a hand­book for sci­en­tists and engi­neers to get them to think about their work,” she said. When someone becomes entrenched in their work, it’s dif­fi­cult to imagine how someone on the out­side will per­ceive it, she con­tinued. “Their eye goes directly to what they want you to see and the assume you see it, too.”

I used to be a writing-​​workshop-​​alholic. A fre­quent topic of con­ver­sa­tion, regard­less of the group, was which details to include and which to exclude. Some­times writers do this same thing that Frankel described: when we know so much about our topic or our char­ac­ters, for example, we can forget to include cru­cial details to bring the reader into the loop.

She pre­sented three ques­tions for sci­en­tists to ask them­selves when putting together a graphic intended to sup­port the sci­ence. First, what is the first thing you want your viewers to see? Second, is this an explana­tory or an exploratory graphic? And third, what is your graphic about?

The tools we have to adress these ques­tions, the authors decided after long debates, are com­po­si­tion, abstrac­tion, color, lay­ering, and refinement.

As an example, she pre­sented this iconic quantum mechanics image from IBM. It’s a corral of indi­vidual atoms.

This is how IBM rep­re­sented it orig­i­nally in a 1993 article in Sci­ence Mag­a­zine. When you look at this, where does your eye go first? Mine goes to the ring of blue spikes, or atoms.

The field around the corral is flat­tened out by virtue of its mul­ti­col­ored ren­dering and by that striking blue ring.

But appar­ently the most inter­esting thing about this image, to a quantum physi­cist anyway, is the effect on the quantum field of that ring…not the ring itself.

In this case, Frankel explained that the use of color sig­nif­i­cantly dimin­ishes the mes­sage the sci­en­tists are trying to deliver. Her response was some­what counter-​​intuitive to me: the graphic artist decided to remove the color entirely, expanding (not reducing) it into a black and white image:

This time where does your eye go. Okay, admit­tedly the ring of atoms still stands out, but now the rip­ples in the quantum field are also quite prominent.

Pay atten­tion to your use of color,” she said. “Make it more readable.”

Later in the talk she touched on big data — that is the exploding infor­ma­tion stream made pos­sible now by things like mobile and satel­lite devices and the super­com­puters that can make sense of it all.

The sci­ence maps in Places and Spaces are static rep­re­sen­ta­tions of these mas­sive data sets. The attempt to make big data leg­ible, digestible. The works in Isabelle Meirelles’ exhi­bi­tion in Florida have that same inten­tion. And while 2D posters are per­haps the sim­plest and least expen­sive way to get the infor­ma­tion out there, an entire world of infor­ma­tion is lost in this approach. Many of the works in Meirelles’ exhibit con­nect to an online com­po­nent that users can interact with.

And this is where Frankel’s point, comes in. “Graphics and pub­lishing are changing,” she said. New forms of data rep­re­sen­ta­tion can “enable users to make deci­sions about what they want to see.” Whereas the works in Meirelles’ show allow users out­side the field to under­stand through inter­ac­tion, Frankel sug­gests that sci­en­tists can use these inter­ac­tive media tools as well, to com­mu­ni­cate their results to colleagues.