Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's WHAT?!

My recent profile of Brooklyn artist Laura Splan, who paints with her own blood, embroiders pathogens, and thinks art shouldn't just be about beauty – it should be about ideas.

With a steady hand Laura Splan dips her paintbrush into a glass vial filled with red ink, brushing one, two, three times against the side to catch any excess drops. In a single sweeping motion, she stains the pristine white surface with a crimson brush stroke that looks an awful lot like…
Blood. It’s Splan’s blood, and it’s her ink of choice. She’s been combining horror and beauty, the biological and the familiar in her artwork for over ten years. For her current project she is using her own blood to paint over vintage doilies, which serve as stencils. When removed from the canvas, the doilies leave behind a series of overlapping, almost floating organic forms – created by the blood seeping into the negative space.
Splan’s sanguine artwork began on a curious whim. “I basically just scrounged up a needle in my house one day and pricked my finger, just to see what it would look like,” said Splan. “I liked what it was doing.”
Splan, 37, an artist and certified phlebotomist (technician trained to draw blood) lives in a small Brooklyn apartment that doubles as her studio. It was during her undergraduate years studying biology at the University of California, Irvine that she realized that “art didn’t have to be about beauty, it could be about ideas.” Scientific ideas continue to inform her art, often surfacing in unexpected ways – like the blood on her paintbrush.
The rest of the story is here

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Please, do explain.

I recently had a chance to talk to Bora Zivkovic (master guru of the science blogging world), about the who, what, and how of science bloggers and explanation. The explanation part fits in with some of the communication/education issues within science that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. How to get people engaged with scientific stories, methods, ideas, ways of thinking? What is the role of a science journalist or writer – educator? truthteller? watchdog? Also, what are the best methods and approaches for telling stories about scientific topics and making these stories relevant to a wider public? How does the public experience these stories, and how do they participate in creating them? Finally, how do these stories and ideas lead to real action in the world?

Lots of thoughts. Luckily, they overlap with a project I'll be helping out on this spring, called Building a Better Explainer. It's part of the Studio 20 program at NYU, and the idea is to investigate the best practices for explaining complex issues (from infographics to timelines to clear prose), and experiment with creating some of these "explainers." Providing this type of context and background – on stories from the housing crisis to fixing the budget –  hopefully creates ways for people to enter into current news stories that they don't quite understand. So instead of the news being a constant stream of updates, it will be something a bit more useful. 

I saw the connection to science right away, since describing complex, technical issues, with context, in an accurate but understandable way seems pretty darn close to a scientist or science writer's job description. Who better to tell us about explaining (providing background knowledge, presenting intelligible data, providing a historical/contextual dimension), than the people who do it every day? So here are some highlights from my Q&A with Bora, who is very excited about the project and was a ton of fun to talk to.

  • Explain until you’re done, and then stop. Don’t be afraid of length – long posts do well because they are useful, and people will come back to them again and again.
  • A personal, conversational tone keeps people reading. Just like you wouldn’t walk out on someone in the middle of a conversation, you read an engaging piece through until the end!
  • Metaphors can be useful in explaining complex issues, but it’s important not to get stuck with just one. A combination of metaphors is often the best way to help people understand.
  • Images like graphs, cartoons, or even hand drawn sketches help people visualize and see the data. Images are not just decoration – they can convey important information.
  • Sometimes complicating the picture is part of explanation. But one must find a balance between the overly simple and overly detailed.
  • Explanation is also about sending people away. Articles become useful by linking out to the best information. Link, Link, Link!
Here's the full interview.

Image: zetson,

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to the basics of science & data viz

One of my goals for the new year is to take a closer look at the science/design connection – especially presenting lots of data in a coherent (and beautiful) way. To start off, here's a recent article I wrote for the Scientific American Guest Blog about designing and displaying information in science (it's also basically an ode to Tufte). 
Data visualization. Infographics. Ooh, better yet, make that interactive infographics. The recent buzz around the visual display of information makes it seem like everyone should be rushing to whip up some multi-colored cartogrambubble chart or word cloud. Never before have we had both the tools and the vast amounts of raw data to play around with, and scientists and journalists alike are making fabulous use of this opportunity. From unemployment rates to air traffic patterns to the wealth and health of nations to blood test results, information has never been so fun to look at.
But before we get too carried away with swirling globes and animated charts, it’s worth going back to the basics – taking note of some simple methods for visually presenting data. This endeavor is particularly relevant to science and health, where visual information appears anywhere from diagrams in scientific research papers to public health campaigns. The field of information design is vast, but I’ll concentrate on just a few simple ways to approach the combination of words and pictures. Many examples come straight from Edward Tufte, the information design guru who put the serious study of infographics on the map, so to speak (the New York Times has called him the Leonardo da Vinci of Data). Since the publication of his first book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information in 1983, Tufte has demonstrated over and over how the right approach to visual displays can dramatically improve the clarity and effectiveness of data. And in fact, many of the classic principles of good information design can be found throughout the history of science...
The whole thing is here. I'm hoping to write more on this stuff in the near future!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Language and Lenses

Apparently I'm on a language/communication kick. The last two stories for Scienceline are both about some of the implications of language – on society and on our minds. First, the language of genetics clearly has a huge impact on how well people understand it, or don't. This includes specific words like "heritability," which has created a whole tangle of problems (don't ask me to explain it again here, it took me days to write that paragraph!) It also includes the metaphors used in describing concepts or ideas or processes, like the blueprint vs. mixing board metaphor to describe how genes relate to the environment. Second, language may have a profound influence on how we think (or it may not, depending on which way the evidence convinces you). At the very least, it seems that even critics admit there may be small ways that language can shape thought, producing certain habits or drawing attention to distinctions or particular aspects of the world, etc. Some past articles (and the sources of inspiration for the story!) on this issue: from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Economist

Also, lenses and glass imagery keep popping up:  the "Mendelian lens of heredity" and all the  looking glass, mirror, and window references in the language/thought debate. Huh. 

Anyways, here they are: 

Rethinking the Gene: The popular notion of genetics is wrong.
December 24, Scienceline

The World Through Language: What language can tell us about how we think. 
January 7, Scienceline

Image: D_P_R,