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Making the invisible visible
by Martha Ladly

Welcome to SEE!

In Issue 6, HorizonZero presents a special edition on new practices in the science, art and design of data visualization. This hot topic was the subject of Quintessence, an international symposium held at The Banff Centre in September, 2002.

Visualization in science, art and design is a shortcut for a constantly occurring mental process: We receive knowledge from a multitude of sources and, when we understand it thoroughly, we “create a picture of it” in our minds. In our visual culture, pictures are more important than words. Images are considered to be more truthful than text, which requires interpretation. Of course, visual information requires interpretation too, but we see it as more transparent, more easily readable. Seeing is believing. It is commonly held that to understand something, you have to “see” it.

The genius of Newton’s mathematical visualizations, with his equations of motion and mechanics, enabled us to literally “see” gravity in the Seventeenth century. Luke Jerram, a young new media artist based in Bristol, UK has a similarly lofty intention: to make the imperceptible perceptible, and to reveal the relationship between Earth and Moon more clearly. As UK curator Peter Ride explains in preface to Jerram’s installation TIDE, “There are many experiences we cannot easily communicate. Gravity is one of those. Our relationship to the Earth’s gravity seems straightforward, but in comparison, our comprehension of the way we experience the gravitational pull of the Moon is much more complex.” In his article on Jerram’s work, HorizonZero’s English Editor Angus Leech talks eloquently of fleeting notions of the Moon tugging perceptibly at the body, as it does the tides, providing us with a tangible knowledge that “gravity rides everything, including us”.

Two thousand years before we could send spacecraft into outer space to provide us with pictures of our planet, the Greek Eratosthenes used mathematics to calculate the curvature of the Earth, enabling us to “see” our planet and visualize the fact that it was round. Today, by using mathematics visualization and powerful telescopes, we can “see” into the outer reaches of the universe. But it takes scientists like astronomer and artist Jayanne English, who creates beautiful and colourful visualizations of space using original black and white data from the Hubble telescope, to show us what’s out there. She is even more excited about her recent work creating colour vistas of the “invisible” universe — a universe revealed in radio telescope data collected by the Canadian/International Galactic Plane Survey. According to Jayanne, “the I/CGPS is exposing the ‘stuff’ between stars, revealing remarkable new features in our Milky Way Galaxy.” To accompany her article Cosmos vs Canvas we have created an interactive reconstruction of the stages in her visualization process, based on her images of the Cygnus Region of the Milky Way.

We now turn our attention from visualizing outer space to visualizing inner space: for it is the corporeal dimensions of visualisation — seeing what is inside us, that is — which most interest Kimberly Sawchuk, Associate Professor in Communication Studies at Concordia University. And little wonder, since she herself confesses to having spent far too much time as a child imagining herself as a microbe. In the audio recording that accompanies this editorial (adapted from a lecture on “biotourism” presented by Sawchuk at Quintessence, a symposium on art and science visualization held at The Banff Centre in September, 2002), Sawchuk discusses “the pleasures and frailties of our mortal coil, as individuals, as a species, as co-existing members of a life-world that encompasses more than the human”. She continues, noting that “We live, in some senses, between worlds. Not just in worlds of tumultuous carnality and dynamic processing, but between two, three, and four dimensions.” Visualize that!

Kimberly Sawchuk also writes for us on eminent Canadian artist Catherine Richards, whose electronic works we are proud to feature in this issue of HorizonZero. As Sawchuk explains in her essay Charged Heart, Richards’ installation art “willingly takes inspiration from scientific and technological inquiry”. Her works “not only make visible complex systems (which, she contends, are the very substance of electronic art), they are also demonstrations that render the visible into a visceral, embodied experience…Richards’ installations promote issue an experiential awareness of the thrills and potential dangers of being plugged in everywhere, at all times, into invisible circuits of electricity and systems of information.” Revealing the hidden structures that surround us is at the very core of visualization. Information visualization or “infovis” is a new field of scientific enquiry that gleans its theoretical foundation from areas as diverse as computer graphics, human-computer interaction, cognitive psychology, semiotics, graphic design, cartography and visual art. And for supersmart UBC computer scientist Tamara Munzner, who wrestles daily with questions about how to graphically represent huge bodies of data in meaningful ways, infovis can also be fun. If you don’t believe me, just have a look at her Outside In math visualisation video, which you’ll find alongside our essay on her work, Thinking with Vision. Or play with KaleidoTile, a software tool she helped develop to explain certain geometrical concepts — it’s accessible from the Toys section of this issue. Making visualizations encourages us to pay attention to details or problems we might otherwise never think about. And the visualization process itself can lead to questions we may not have otherwise considered.

Sheelagh Carpendale, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Calgary, is doing new work with visualization that she calls “elastic presentation”. Her research creates strategies for combining different forms of information visualisation to best suit the information that others are working with, and the tasks they need to accomplish.

Visualization can also allow us to see things that are inaccessible or hidden. As physicist Marc Rioux, Principal Research Officer of the National Research Council of Canada’s Visual Information Technology Group, explains in his article Virtualizing Reality, “The 3D visualization of real objects and environments can now be used to bring the mountain to Mahomet. From virtual tours of closed historical sites, to the sharing of digitized objects such as fragile fossils or cuneiform tablets between scientists, to digital scanning in space, 3D digitizing is opening up new possibilities for the study of science, culture, and art.”

Finally, visualization can bring us closer to the natural world: Toronto documentary filmmaker Michael Clark has been using innovative camera systems to photograph wildlife and extreme landscapes while also gathering scientific data. In an article featuring his work, HorizonZero Editorial Assistant Brianne Wells explains that, “By gathering data and documentary footage at the same time, Clark has been able to bridge the gap between art and science in a visually appealing way. His cameras have helped biologists, educators, and documentary audiences peer into otherwise inaccessible environs, and pass on a greater understanding of nature.” The starkly beautiful 360 degree Quick Time VR images that Clark has captured in the Canadian arctic, as well as footage from his underwater “Beluga Cam”, are delightful features in this issue’s edition of Horizontal.

References and Acknowledgements
Inspiration for this issue, and this editorial, has come from several sources. First, the artists, scientists, designers and writers who have contributed to SEE!Also influential were Keith Devlin’s Making the Invisible Visible, a commencement address delivered to the mathematics graduating class of the University of California at Berkeley, 1997; and On Visualisation, a lecture by James F. Blinn presented at Caltech in 1991.

Martha Ladly is Director of HorizonZero.

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