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Rising to the "Science Visualization Challenge" 30

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the what-graph-charts-suck dept.
ahab_2001 writes "The NSF and the journal Science have announced the 2007 winners of the annual Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, mounted each year "to encourage cutting-edge efforts to visualize scientific data." There's a write-up of the winners in the journal, and also a slide presentation showcasing the winning images and videos."
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Rising to the "Science Visualization Challenge"

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  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) on Sunday September 30, 2007 @11:37AM (#20801715) Homepage Journal
    There are times when visualization becomes an end in itself, not a tool for understanding. If what you want to do is create art from the natural world, that's great -- the showcased entries are undeniably beautiful, and I especially wouldn't mind having a the bat flight poster on my wall -- but it's a mistake to think that this is necessarily the best way to convey scientific information. There really are "two types of people in the world" when it comes to this sort of thing: call them visual learners and verbal learners, geometers and algebraists, GUI people and command-line people, what-have-you. For people in the first group, looking at a picture can often lead to great flashes of insight. For people in the second group, of which I happen to be a member, the best way to understand something is to read a well-written description or an elegantly proved theorem. Figures may be helpful, but the simpler (not necessarily the prettier) the better, and usually only as a kind of "capstone" after understanding the concept as written down.

    The reason this bugs me is that in my field, bioinformatics, journal articles and textbook entries are getting glossier and more picture-laden all the time, and I don't think it's helping. Everyone who publishes any article having anything to do with microarray experiments has to include (at least one) heat map, with its pretty but useless bunch of colored dots; if they did hierarchical clustering on the results, they throw in an absurdly complex and impossible-to-interpret dendrogram attached to the side. Discussions of the biological processes under study, in both bioinformatics and classical biology, are filled with brightly colored, oversimplified illustrations that contribute more to the cost and sheer physical weight of textbooks than they do to understanding. And clearly written explanations are scarce, because so much effort has been put into the figures that there's none left over for thinking about the use of language (including math) or, hell, simple proofreading.

    I'm not saying visualization isn't important; it is, and people who do it well are valuable. There are times when even I struggle to understand a paragraph, then look at the accompanying figure and get that "ah hah!" moment. Until modern computer graphics became cheap and widely available, visual learners were often left in the dust, and I'm glad that's not the case anymore. But I do think maybe the pendulum has swung a little too far in the visual direction, and for us algebraists, that's a real problem.

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants. -- Isaac Newton

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