Telling visual stories for science

The other night I attended a presentation/panel discussion about visual science communication. Well, I should say I had a terrific dinner at Wexler's first, then attended a presentation/panel discussion. These panels are better with a cocktail in you.

The event took place at swissnex. I think they like their name uncapitalized. I'm still a bit unclear about what swissnex is. The name struck me as delicious-sounding, like something you'd pair with Nutella in the morning. Swissnex. Your Toast's Best Friend.

I read their annual report and sat in their event space, so I know that they are a non-profit, they are staffed by lots of competent Swiss people, and they like to underline text. I'm guessing it's some kind of quasi-governmental Swiss cultural mission. Anyway, they host presentations about art and science, and do fun things like get Swiss kids to think about what 2023 will look like. All very wholesome.

The speakers at this event were a motley crew, and some are doing truly interesting work designing things to communicate science to the public. There was Michele Johnson, for example, a "public affairs officer" for the Kepler mission at NASA Ames. Kepler is a space telescope orbiting the sun, looking for Earth-like planets. She talked about how they manage to create a huge beautifully-rendered picture of a distant planet using only 6 pixels of image data. Obviously, it involves making a lot of assumptions. (I think the Kepler people are a tad jealous of Hubble, pumping out eye candy for the public, no need to emblazen "artist rendering" all over them like a Barry Bonds asterisk. I'd be jealous, too. It's the difference between a webcam from 1995 and a telephoto DSLR. But they do impressive work, despite their constraints.)

Another interesting panelist was Ryan Wyatt, the director of the planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences. He showed us the visualization his team created for their EARTHQUAKE!!! exhibit. Pretty sweet. And kind of mind-bending, because they're designing this uber-animation for the domed ceiling of the planetarium, projected with at least a half dozen overlapping light systems. They are an active and talented bunch, it seems. Six full-time staff work on science visualizations at the museum. (Edit: over-estimated the size of the team. Thanks, Ryan!)

There was also Joe Hanson, who does a PBS Youtube show called "It's OK to Be Smart." His main point: that creating engaging video content (about science, or drunk make-up tips, or whatever) is easy, can be done on a shoestring budget, and please please please release your stuff to Creative Commons so that other people can re-mix and re-use for free.

It ended late, so I wasn't in the mood to hob-nob too much. Plus that cocktail was beginning to weigh on my consciousness. But I left with a feeling that the problems the UX community face aren't so different from our compatriots doing science visualization. Sure, science viz is less concerned with usability and affordance (museum exhibits being a big exception). But we both have to synthesize input from subject matter experts. We both juggle the demands of clients and users and resources. We both strive to create artifacts that engage our users, drawing them in, immersing them in an experience, distilling complexity into its essential pieces. Our two communities, seemingly distinct, have a lot to learn from each other.