“Artistic visualizations bring ideas to light in ways that scientists and engineers cannot”


The way we communicate science visually ranges from numerical simulations to more subjective artistic speculation. Jack Challoner’s new book explains it all.

“I’ve always been a visual thinker, as well as being someone who cares about technical details,” says Jack Challoner, “and I’ve always appreciated the power of images to capture interest, inspire and make people curious.” The ‘Seeing Science’ author says his new book has given him the “opportunity to study that a bit more”. Rather than “just presenting images”, here’s an excuse to “think about why they are so important” to enable our understanding of the world.

The author of more than 40 books aimed at promoting public understanding of science, Challoner explains that much of his career has involved intensive work with visuals. He says he jumped at the chance to produce “Seeing Science,” which combines and balances the two approaches. Although the book is clearly an illustrated tour of the history and future of science, it is illuminated throughout with clear text that shows why Challoner is one of today’s most respected science writers. today.

The subtitle of his latest is “The Art of Making the Invisible Visible”. And while that might at first glance sound like a publisher’s slogan from an industry that so underestimates its readership that it can barely produce a book these days without explaining the title, in this case it wins his life in an honorable way. The use of the word “art” not only allows Challoner to reinforce the advantage of creative speculations in futurology, but it is also an important recognition of the growing influence of art in the technological space.

Not only does this put the “A” in STEAM, but it emphasizes that there is more to revealing the functions and operations of the world around us than simply deploying technology such as microscopes or producing graphics. Data and numbers, Challoner reminds us, are cognitive challenges until we interpret them visually; in a figurative sense making “the invisible visible” again.

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“See Science”

So much of the world around us is hidden from the naked eye that for centuries one of the most constant challenges of scientific discovery has been to make the “invisible visible”. It can be as obvious as presenting small things as bigger using optical instruments, or from a more sophisticated 21st century perspective, it can be about how to present data graphically. With its fast shutter speeds and ability to create time-lapse images, photography has played a vital role in helping us explore the scientific process, while speculative art can help the imagination visualize undiscovered phenomena. . The pictorial presentation of science is the subject of Jack Challoner’s superb new book. ‘Seeing Science’ is lavishly illustrated, opening the reader’s eyes to how much easier it is to absorb complex ideas – ranging from the mathematical to the microscopic – when we can see them for ourselves.

“Seeing the Science” is divided into four sections that cover what Challoner identifies as the cornerstones of visualizing the universe we live in. The first is primarily about technology that allows us to better understand the physical world beyond the limits of our senses. This is where he covers historic scientific instrumentation, before moving along the timeline to photography and electron microscopes, looking beyond the visible spectrum, as well as fields and particles. The second is about data, information and knowledge, looking at how we visualize numbers and communicate information. In the second half of the book, he moves on to mathematical models, simulations, and computational fluid dynamics as means of expressing reality. In the fourth section, he analyzes the relationship between science and art from prehistory to future science fiction.

This last section is important for Challoner, in particular because of its potential for surprise in a discipline which has all the outward appearances of not being receptive to subjectivity. “At first I thought this section would focus on art impressions, which tend to be about the distant past or things deep in space that we can scientifically understand, but never really see.” Challoner soon came to realize that “art has another role in science, technology and engineering, which is to have an emotional effect by imparting knowledge or inspiring people. Artistic visualizations can showcase ideas in ways that scientists and engineers cannot.

For all the credibility of Challoner’s text, his words will inevitably be seen by some as the act of supporting the images, while it is equally certain that others will skim the captions in favor of the admiration of the images. It’s not something you could blame even the most attentive reader, because “Seeing Science” is a feast for the eyes, whether you’re looking at Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s “Drawing of a Tinted Neuron” from the 19th Century or ‘Digital Astrophotography of Part of the Hubble Legacy Field’.

On nearly every page there is illustrated confirmation that when it comes to the great church of science, in terms of sheer interest value, very few come close. In photography, there are plenty of old favourites, including Harold Edgerton and Kim Vandiver’s stunning shot of a bullet going through an apple, in which shutter speed is measured in billionths of a second. There’s also the poorly staged 1953 black-and-white photo of molecular biologists James Crick and Francis Watson staring at a Heath Robinson-esque model of the DNA double helix.

These camera-recorded moments are only part of the story. And where photography using visible light falls short, other genres of illustration come into play, such as graphics, manuscripts, cartography, drawings, and digital artworks. There are also quite a few images related to the field of computational fluid dynamics that add a lot to the book’s visual appeal: “They’re really eye-catching and beautiful,” says Challoner. Whether done on a computer or otherwise, they are based on the unsolved Navier-Stokes differential equations which were developed in the first half of the 19th century, “and therefore have approximations which can be simulated on a computer and then visualized is truly a powerful tool.The images they produce are striking and intriguing.

Without Challoner’s words, “Seeing Science” would undoubtedly be an aesthetically pleasing and well-organized guide to how we visually respond to science. With them, the book becomes a valuable explanation of how these scientific images came to be and what they contribute to our deeper understanding. “I wanted to see why these images are so powerful and useful,” says the author. This review expands from the starting point of the aphorism attributed to New York Evening Journal editor Arthur Brisbane more than a century ago: “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.

While Challoner agrees that pictures are often easier to remember than words, they don’t satisfy the curiosity of the inquisitive mind in the same way. With ‘Seeing Science’, it’s a good idea to have the best of both worlds: the approximately 160 images and the thousands of words that go with them.

‘Seeing Science’ by Jack Challoner is from MIT Press, £28.


The eyes don’t always have it

Human eyes are remarkable, but they have three main limitations that make much of the world around us invisible. The first is that the eyes are, by definition, only sensitive to a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The second is that they can only detect light above a certain level of brightness. Only about six thousand stars are visible to the naked eye, although many, many dimmer stars are present. A telescope has a larger aperture than the eye’s pupil and therefore has a greater light-gathering ability. In 1610, Galileo Galilei was able to see “a host of other stars, which escape unaided sight, so numerous as to be almost unbelievable”.

The third limitation relates to “sharpness”, the ability to resolve details. This means that very small things, or very distant things, are invisible. One of the causes of this limitation is diffraction – the way light travels due to its wave nature. Light passing through the pupil propagates from the edge of the pupil, much like water waves propagate when passing through an opening in a harbor wall. Therefore, when falling on the retina, light from any point on an object forms a small fuzzy disk rather than a sharp point. In the retinal image, the Airy disks of two very close points will merge, and then these two points cannot be resolved.

Visual acuity also depends on the density of light-sensitive cells in the retina, just as the resolving power of a digital camera depends on the number of light-sensitive elements in its image sensor. The total number of light-sensitive cells in the retina is close to 100 million. Visual acuity in the human eye is highest where cell density is highest, in a small region called the fovea. In the center of the fovea there are more than 150,000 cells per mm2.

Edited excerpt from Seeing Science by Jack Challoner, reproduced with permission.

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