09 March 2007

If a picture paints a thousand words...

All science, when you come down to it, is mental models, and the overwhelming majority of human mental models are visual. It’s only a modest exaggeration to say that science is visualisation, and vice versa.

A human being finding itself in the dark will normally listen for sounds, explore adjacent surfaces and spatial relationships by fingertip touch, and cautiously move through the available space with the whole body surface tuned for input. But from the resulting data the mind will mentally synthesise a visual, not auditory or tactile, representation of its surroundings. Olfactory information will be interpreted in relation to, and amplify understanding of, the developing visual model. And a human being entering conceptual or intellectual spaces that are not directly perceivable extends this same behaviour: available information from whatever source is manipulated symbolically but, in most cases, modelled visually.

All scientific computing is, from one point of view, about making those mental models bigger or faster or more complex while keeping them meaningful to the human mind. And all of this is even more so for information that is crossing expertise boundaries within an ever more specialised knowledge universe, where experts from one line of work must often make use of concepts or results from another.

Within its emphasis on the visual, though, the mind is very flexible and adaptable. Interpreting colour as an indicator of olfactory type or intensity, for instance, presents no real problems, and models need not be literal or even consistent in order to be useful. An atom is not the raspberry with orbiting peas or blackcurrants portrayed to me in primary school. A molecule is neither the bundle of sticks shown by a 2D structure diagram nor the space filling foam of coloured bubbles in a geometry minimisation image. Yet all of these visualisations (together with visually descriptive terms like ‘ring’) are useful components of background understanding when interpreting symbolic chemical information. Though far less physically abstract, body imaging makes greater and more complex use of false colour. Where colour in the molecular model is usually a labelling device to distinguish one particle from another, in medicine it typically expresses variation across continuous measurement scales.

The ubiquity of computing has brought immeasurable benefits to every field of study, and to science in particular. It has also brought a need for everyone to be comfortable using it, regardless of aptitude or interest, which makes usability a primary concern and plurality of user interfacing essential. And since calculation is a fundamental requirement of modern science, linking it with visualisation is an obvious usability benefit. [More...]

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