Thursday, 14 January 2010

ScienceOnline2010: Push it til it breaks

(Today, a guest post by my ScienceOnline2010 session co-leader, Felice Frankel!)The process of coming up with a visual metaphor to explain to someone a particular scientific concept can be quite effective, not only for your readers, but for you –– the process can help to clarify the concept in your own mind. In addition, a discussion about the limitations of that metaphor can be just as clarifying (and fun!). We are incorporating this idea in our NSF-funded Picturing to Learn program.

For years, I have wanted to create an online library of metaphors to communicate complicated science concepts and to engage whoever was interested in why and where those metaphors fall apart. We should do it. Who wants to be part of it?

Here a just a few examples from George Whitesides' and my new book No Small Matter, Science on the Nanoscale.
Quantum Apple attempt to depict the counter intuitiveness of quantum mechanics. Not necessarily a deep portrayal to be sure. I just wanted the reader to get a handle about the idea that QM is NOT like the world as we "see" it.

Writing with Light

How some devices are made using "photolithography".

Graduation Chairs much of what we see is dependent upon where our heads are at, at the time we see it. Coincidentally, while I was working with researchers at MIT imaging samples showing "templated self-assembly" of block co-polymers (another example with which you are more familiar would be DNA replication), the facilities folks were setting up chairs for parents which were meant as "guides" or "templates", where to sit during graduation. Again, nothing that profound but perhaps interesting enough to get some feedback. I decided to post the image and ask people to write to me and suggest what they see in the metaphor. The responses were all over the place:
"... an illustration of orbitals and similar constraints on electrons in an atom."

"The image reminds me of columns (or rows :D) of ICs"

"...circuit on the motherboard of a computer."

"...gravestone markers in a cemetery."

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We'll see you at ScienceOnline2010!
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Today's images Copyright by Felice Frankel.

Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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