Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Culture: Visualization No Small Matter

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the emotional-world culture of the United States, how things appear is exceptionally important. Scientists, who spent most of their time trying to figure out the substance of the world, don't commonly take the time to worry about the visual presentation of their work to the public. Fortunately for them, there are a small number of people like Felice Frankel.

I had the privilege of taking an Independent Activities Period (January) class from Frankel at MIT some years ago. Titled "What Color is your Pixel?" it focused on improving the visualization of scientific data. If I walked away from that short course with one message, it was that while there might be principles to follow that were discussed at length, fundamentally data presentation is an art. People are going to feel differently about what looks the best, and even about what is most accurate.

Yet, in the whole class, there was little in the way of suggestions for Frankel's work. It wasn't because we were afraid to question the instructor. Take a look at any of her published works, most notably the series of books in which her photographs appear with text by George Whitesides (who merits a whole separate essay of praise), and try to improve them. My favorite, "On The Surface of Things", will get just about anyone excited about an aspect of science that too often is ignored in technology products.

I rather wish I had taken that class before I encountered much more amateurish advice at a certain other famous university. I will never forget the industrial engineering class that recommended the "Big D method" (make the data points bigger) and the "Big L method" (make the regression line through the data points bigger) to make a graph more convincing to an audience. Those methods may have their place, but I suspect Frankel would look at the overall context of the graph (whether on a poster, presentation slide, or other media) first, rather than effectively distorting the data.

Frankel and Whitesides have been getting publicity of late for their latest work, "No Small Matter", on nanotechnology. I have yet to see the book, and I'm not sure if Paul Solmon's extrapolations to general innovations in this report from the PBS NewsHour (which alerted me to it) are valid, but I'm sure I will be in awe. I have little doubt that Frankel has again done scientists a major favor in making nanotechnology a little less scary and fundamentally more alluring to the general public.

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