Pretty pictures

By Daniel Holz | February 16, 2007 2:26 am

In a follow-up to Julianne’s previous post on scientific communication, I thought I’d describe a lecture I attended last week. I’ll try not to say anything overly controversial (though CV readers can be a tough crowd). The talk was by Felice Frankel, as part of the Santa Fe Institute public lecture series. The title was “More than Pretty Pictures: The Power of Images in Science”. Frankel is known for her scientific photographs. She creates beautiful images of a large range of physical systems (from water droplets to nanocrystals). She’s been responsible for quite a number of cover images for journals such as Science and Nature.

Frankel spent much of her lecture discussing her philosophy in taking scientific images. This consisted mostly of comments about the power of visualization, and ideas for how to make scientific visualization more effective. She emphasized that it’s highly nontrivial to produce an image which grabs you, while simultaneously informing you about the science it’s meant to represent. Many scientific images are uninspired. Or confusing. Often both. The lecture was sprinkled liberally with her work, much of which is quite arresting. For example:
This is an image of a ferrofluid. Frankel took seven small magnets, and placed them below a glass plate with the fluid above. She then added a bright yellow Post-It note below, yielding the vivid colors. It is this last step which completely transforms the photograph, and which your average scientist would have neglected. We have much to learn in how to present our results, both within the community, and to the world at large.

Images are indeed an essential component of science. They are visceral and physical, in a way that a table of numbers cannot hope to reproduce. They allow for what Frankel terms “visual thinking”: a direct and unmediated engagement with the world. This is particularly evident in astronomy. I would argue that the Hubble Space Telescope has generated many of the most beautiful images ever produced. And an appreciation of the science underlying the images only strengthens one’s admiration. Astronomy is peculiar in that a large portion of the field is fundamentally based on pretty pictures. (Okay, some of these pictures are run through variants of prisms to produce spectra, which aren’t quite as beautiful (at least to my, untrained, eye).) Julianne is our resident expert on taking and interpreting astronomical images; I’m told it’s a little more involved than pointing a digital camera and pushing the button.

What I found most surprising about Frankel’s lecture was her repeated insistence that she is not an artist, and that her photos are not to be considered art. As she put it: “This is why I am not an artist: I am deeply committed to maintaining the integrity of the science.” In her view, because she is constrained to reproduce the world as it is, she is not allowed the free rein of an artist. Her focus is on communicating science as effectively as possible: education rather than aesthetics, meaning rather than art. I find this argument somewhat disappointing. Her most effective images are certainly art; in fact, a number of museums have added her photographs to their collections. And her ability to produce these images, without the liberty of composing unphysical scenarios, or the liberal application of photoshop, does not detract from her talents. If anything, the restricted domain in which she works emphasizes her abilities. Although the sonnet is a severely constrained form of expression, I don’t see anyone arguing that Shakespeare’s contributions don’t qualify as art.

One side-note which Frankel briefly touched upon was the issue of “true” or “accurate” representation in science. While Frankel makes an effort to maintain the essential integrity of her images, most Hubble images are somewhat enhanced (false-color). This means that, were you to manage to stick your head into the focal plane of the Hubble telescope (the fact that it’s hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth notwithstanding), the image you would see with your eyes would look completely different from the postcards we’re all familiar with. Scientists have taken liberties with the color palette and contrast in producing the images. Often the frequencies of the light in astronomical images are well outside human experience. The human eye is a particular sensor, and there’s no reason that it “sees” the universe in a way that’s in any sense profound. For example, we don’t see infrared. If we did, a hot pan on the stove would glow as a warning, and all those times I have dropped spaghetti sauce all over the floor would have been avoided. We don’t see x-rays either (superman presumably does; but in his case his eyes must not only be sensitive to x-rays, but also emit them in the first place, since the Sun isn’t bright enough in x-rays to give him good images on Earth). There are interesting astronomical sources of light at essentially all frequencies we’ve cared to observe, and so we generate images in a tremendous range of wavelength bands. Furthermore, by playing with the contrast and color scale, we can highlight various features and structures in the images; perhaps we’d like to “see” star forming regions, or shocked gas, or interstellar dust. As a happy byproduct, we also make the images visually stunning. It’s probably not entirely happenstance that images which emphasize interesting science also happen to be more beautiful. Although you would never see the identical scene with your naked eye at a telescope, the images are no less physical or instructive. They represent good science and good aesthetics. What’s not to love?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts, Science and the Media
  • John Phillips

    Personally, I think that any true scientist is as much an artist as a scientist, if not more so in some ways. After all a good scientist needs at least as much creativity as any artist, the only real difference being the end result of its application.

  • Bill Tozier

    There are diverse reasons and motivations for anybody to become a scientist—surely as many as there are scientists (and artists). A substantial number no doubt depend on stereotypes of “integrity” of the subject matter and presentation to assuage something in themselves, some misunderstanding they have about the rigor of the cientific method, or the accuracy of results, or the skills needed (or superfluous for) reporting results. And some no doubt succeed or fail in science because their own standard model of the work and its proper form is different from their peers and mentors.

    I once had a very bad review of a computational biochemistry paper not because of its content, but because nobody liked the Borges reference in the title.

    The deepest lesson, maybe deeper than the explicit aesthetic one, is that very few people in science ever bother to consider how their work is read, what will be seen in images and texts, about who will be reading their published work, and why, and what they will want to see.

  • adam

    Pretty pictures? Bah. If sandgrains on a chladni plate were good enough for me, they should be good enough for everyone.

  • Douglas

    When I think of beauty in science, I am reminded of my first childhood love, geology. I still visit geology from time to time, despite my passions now lying elsewhere–we’re still very good friends. But when I think of geology, I am reminded of various stunning landscapes that at first were simply beautiful, and then became rich with geologic story. When I visit a natural history museum, and learn about the geology of a certain region, I am reminded of the eternity and beauty they represent, like a Bach partita.

    My point being, we look at Ansel Adams photographs, and call them art without a blink of an eye, and yet his photographs are extremely instructive in geological science. He is only representing “what is”, and yet it is art through and through. His treatises on photography are renown in the field; his masterful, and somewhat mechanical, technique is part of his genius. So can scientific representation be art? You bet your knickers it can.

    By the way, my current research advisor’s wife runs a gallery where they sell artistic representation of his scientific results. And these are really crazy things, like quantum chaos. Absolutely stunning–I love working in an environment where such beautiful pictures remind me of the underlying beauty of, say, staying up all night debugging matlab code.

  • Eclectic Floridian

    I’m a non-scientist with an interest in it since I first read an account of the big-bang and the extent of the universe. I read this at the age of 13.

    My computer desktop always has a scientific photo (gotta love the Hubble Telescope). But, I notice, when I show the newest image to my social-worker wife, the explanation of the time and distances involved (large or small), the methods required to capture the image, always generate in her an … impatience … as if all that “stuff” is superfluous.

    But, it’s not superfluous, it’s integral to the “art.” The reason good science images are also “art” is that they are beautiful and produced with a stringent set of constraints that mere artists can ignore.

  • Simon DeDeo

    I wonder if there is an inherent conflict between the way one appreciates art and science. The true criterion for communicating a scientific concept must be answerable to questions of transparency and honesty. I just don’t see how that can be valid for art as well: one of the crucial facets of art is the way in which it conceals its devices, and the way in which the artist is placed in a hierarchical one-way communication with the audience.

    To me the image of the ferrofluid is aesthetically appealing, but tells me nothing about the science behind it. It’s just plain false to claim that this image is anything but an artistic creation. To put it another way, if there was no such thing as a ferrofluid, and Frankel used computer graphics to make the same image, it would have the same value. That’s just not true of a scientific paper: if you’re making up your data, you’re doing something wrong.

    I like writing papers well — I like paying attention to my rhetoric and the flow of my sentences. When I give presentations I’m more free in this respect: nobody’s taping, so I can use metaphor and be picturesque. But I’d be a bad scientist if I let my concern for metaphor override my duty to present the facts and their complex interrelations — interrelations which may lack aesthetic appeal but are facts nonetheless.

  • adam

    Simon #6: With regards to your last point, I don’t think that anyone would suggest that we should neglect facts in favour of flash (although we could leave facts and complexity out in order to ensure that our presentation was appropriate for the intended audience). However, you can present the same stuff in different ways; that can be as simple as NOT TRYING TO PUT TOO MUCH INFORMATION ON A GODAMNED SLIDE, JESUS WEPT*, or picking a presentational approach to the information that is gradual, right up to designing a graphical representation/visualisation that serves as a genuine mental tool for the viewer.

    In general, I would say that all communication is mostly about appreciating the internal state of the audience. Quite often, some visual flash is entirely appropriate to the task of communicating whatever scientific material it is that you are trying to communication. The arrangement of the ‘facts’ can be quite varied without being a misrepresentation.

    However, I’m not that excited by the picture of the ferrofluid, I am afraid. I have the cold, dark, arid heart of a conservative.

    *A source of some minor irritation

  • Simon DeDeo

    The problem as I see it is that once you say, as Frankel seems to, that the visual flash is anything but a decoration — that it has something other than a passing entertainment value — you immediately emerge into very rocky territory.

  • adam

    It certainly could be rocky ground if you are at the same time claiming that it’s science research. If you’re interested in communicating science, though, including to other scientists in seminars, colloquia, etc, visual flash is often not a bad idea; it’s just important to ensure that nothing materially false or misleading gets in for aesthetic reasons (not entirely different to what many media outlets do when they simplify science stories down to a level appropriate to what they believe is that of their reader/viewership).

    Easier for us blackhearted art-hating conservatives, of course. So long as we get to shoot at poor people on our way back from Church in our SUVs, that’s all the art we need.

  • Chris W.

    The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

    — Igor Stravinsky

    More quotes from Stravinsky here.

  • Eugene

    I think caption writing is as important as the image itself. Does Ms Frankel writes the caption herself too?

  • adam

    You don’t think that ‘ferrofluid on glass over magnets on a post-it background’ does the trick, Eugene?

  • tyler

    “If you’re interested in communicating science, though, including to other scientists in seminars, colloquia, etc, visual flash is often not a bad idea; it’s just important to ensure that nothing materially false or misleading gets in for aesthetic reasons”

    This is a very perceptive statement. Adam, I hope you especially will read VDQI, because you already get one of the most important points. What Tufte shows, though, is just how destructive even the most innocuous-seeming elements of visual flash can be to effective communication.

  • Plato

    I like this post.

    B’s got one as well in relation to, ” >a href=””>Art and Science” you might like.

    Off hand, I was thinking about Escher and Penrose in relation to the tessellations, and thought how important this relationship? Or views on dynamical triangulations, in relation to cubism?

    The computerize techniques required for neutrino research would be similar I think, with regards to the dressing up the images from Hubble?

    I think “sound” in this relation might be of interest in terms of the cosmology and how we see events as well?

  • tyler

    my post above references (“VDQI”) a prior post that is not appearing, after a very unusually long delay. But when I try to repost it, the system tells me it’s a duplicate. So, I’ll wait a bit longer, in the meantime please know I’m not just babbling random letters ;o)

  • Chris W.

    I should included this quote from Daniel’s post with my previous comment (Stravinsky quote):

    And her ability to produce these images, without the liberty of composing unphysical scenarios, or the liberal application of photoshop, does not detract from her talents. If anything, the restricted domain in which she works emphasizes her abilities. Although the sonnet is a severely constrained form of expression, I don’t see anyone arguing that Shakespeare’s contributions don’t qualify as art.

    (Unfortunately CV’s WordPress setup disables select-copy-paste for its posts (as opposed to comments), so I had to locate the text in the page’s XHTML source.)

  • tyler

    Chris: an aside on constraint vs. freedom in art:

    The history of jazz music can be viewed as the struggle between constraint and freedom. Some prefer highly constrained styles (bebop), others like completely unconstrained “free” jazz, while many of us find that the most interesting structures emerge somewhere in the middle. Miles Davis, for instance, has recordings which range almost the entire spectrum, but my favorites are from the early and mid-60s. They are free enough to allow interesting new forms to emerge through improvisation but constrained enough to provide a useful conceptual framework, so the musicians (and listeners) can stay “on the same page” as it were.

    Coltrane is another classic example of a jazz artist whose catalog ranges from the very highly ordered (Giant Steps) to the utterly chaotic (Stellar Regions et al), but for many fans his finest works are those towards the middle of this spectrum (My Favorite Things, A Love Supreme).

  • TBB

    Tried to post something to no avail. :-(

  • TBB

    Hmm…let me try what Plato did and remove my HTML tags:

    Photography is art, skill and technology. Ansel Adams’s landscape images were so sublime because he knew how to manipulate the camera, use shadow and light and composition with much skill. Likewise, the MRO photographs of Mars, I recall Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society claiming, could be hanging in a gallery (those false color topography pictures with wonderful texture). How one frames an image and causes another to look at something in a different way is the key to all art, and now we have this macroscopic technology, highly advanced telescopes, cameras, et cetera, to stretch photography even further.

    A couple of years ago I got this link off of 3 Quarks Daily (such a wonderful blog): Princeton’s Art of Science Competition (remove asteriks) **, which does have captions for each photo. I love looking at these images; one could just draw ants, just as the old Audubon books of sketched birds, but this is where technology has brought us now. And aren’t we driven towards aesthetics? We wouldn’t gurgle over beautiful sunsets if not and there’s a lot of science to be learned just looking at those.

    Last week while perusing the physics section of the bookstore I thumbed through this book, Art & Physics, by Leonard Schlain, a surgeon apparently. It looked somewhat interesting, but has mixed reviews on Amazon – wondering if anyone is familiar with it. I had enough books in my hands as it was.

    PlatoI still think the Cassini-Huygens probe “Titan Descent Data Movie with Bells and Whistles” video reminds me of an installation in the modern art section of our local museum. It looks like a souffle bursting on a plate, actually. ;-) “The Way Things Work” is on a TV installation, too…and that’s all mechanics.

    Video link minus asteriks, but screen should be enlarged:

  • Kaleberg

    Someone has to mention Berenice Abbot who did a series of now iconic science photos which are often found in textbooks. (Some were taken for The Attractive Universe). They are simple, beautiful and direct. She used stop motion to demonstrate the principles of mechanics and fantastic images of light in motion to demonstrate optics. You have probably seen some of these photos as many readers of this blog have taken physics courses.

    Check out:
    which has a few samples.

    Someone should also mention “Doc” Edgerton of high speed photographic fame and one heck of a ukulele player. His drop splash pictures redefined the way we understand motion. Of course, he followed up on the work of Muybridge who did some of the first stop motion sequence photography.

    For an interesting set of images, check out Beyond Vision (by Darius). It is chock full of great scientific images including a 19th century stereogram of the moon based on libration and the first color image of the stars, which was sold at the Mt Wilson gift shop, I believe, without comment on its historical interest.

    Is it art or science? It is probably a bit of both. Wasn’t most Renaissance painting about the interaction of light and matter as reproduced in pigment? One can consider Guernica, or Henry the V, Part I, as art, or as politics. Why is the duality lost for science?

  • Eugene

    Adam #12,

    Actually no, I don’t think it does. Most of my friends who go “huh”.

    (For a baseline, I think the captions in the Astronomy of the Day archives are great.)

  • Plato


    There has been lots of issue here in terms of the spam filter, and to display url was an accident, with “the arrow/greater then” pointing the wrong way.

    Anyway to your point. You sparked recognition of the descent and an article I did.

    The “sound of the descent.” This also sparked recognition of various posts on the blogs in terms of sound, “Clifford’s B Flat,” and others. How do you bring this together with all the other “means of measure” in which we view the cosmos. JoAnne’s gamma ray picture of the Sun?

    The Huygens probe was delivered to Saturn’s moon Titan by the Cassini spacecraft, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. NASA supplied two instruments on the probe, the descent imager/spectral radiometer and the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer

    So this is one more aspect that has been developing. The “sound of gravitational” waves? I’ll have two links for consideration and the idea of bringing this into the pictures we have of the cosmos. I will address this in my blog post later.

    Thanks for pointing this out.

  • Ben

    I think it’s legitimate for Frankel to claim that she is not an artist even though her pictures are visually striking and end up in art museums. I can go to a museum and see a war photograph by Robert Capa or a chair from China or the Venus of Willendorf or a Shaker box. None of these objects were created as art objects (Capa would have said he was a photojournalist), although now they have become art. (For one perspective on how that happens, see the writings of Arthur Danto.) The photojournalist is the best analogy, since like a scientist the journalist has an obligation to represent the phenomena faithfully, but also compellingly.

  • Amara

    These “colored smoke” photos would fit the same genre as Frankel, but I suspect the photographer would call himself an artist. They are lovely, no matter what the photographer(s) call themselves, I think.

  • AKB

    I think that this simple thing is actually very pretty. Slightly scientific of course because of using magnets and liquid but other than that very pretty. I myself am a photographer and i know pretty when I see pretty.

    Plus that colored smoke link that Amara posted was very lovely indeed.

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