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Pixels or Perish

The art of scientific illustration will have to adapt to the new age of online publishing

Brian Hayes

Info Vis

2012-03HayesFE.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe D3 project is one of many to come from a thriving creative community that works under the banner of info vis or data vis (with close connections to those who do stat vis and sci vis). Michael Friendly of York University in Toronto has described the present era as a new golden age in data visualization. The old golden age was the 19th century, when William Playfair, Florence Nightingale, Charles Minard and a few others perfected many of the graphic devices (pie charts, line graphs) that are now standard apparatus throughout the sciences. The modern revival has brought us new forms of quantitative graphics suited to an age when considerable computational power is available even in a Web browser.

I am enthusiastic about the prospects of the info-data-stat-sci-vis biz. It has the potential to make science communication at all levels—from schoolbooks to scholarly journals—more effective and more fun. But worrisome problems remain.

First, creating active graphics takes a lot of work—and a lot of wonk, too. If this is an art form only for JavaScript gurus, it will not spread widely. The impact will be greater when the ideas from a program such as D3 filter into software environments such as R and gnuplot, MATLAB and Mathematica, or even Powerpoint and Excel.

Heisen PixelSecond, the quality of graphic output is not yet up to the highest publication standards. One reason is simply the low resolution of most computer screens. This will doubtless change, but in the meantime we have to cope with issues such as the Heisenpixel problem (see illustration at right).

Finally, there’s the nagging anxiety about entrusting the literature of science to digital formats that are not directly accessible to the human senses. Will we still be able to see those fancy JavaScript graphics in 100 years? In 10 years? As a matter of fact, they don’t work reliably even now unless you choose the right combination of hardware and software to view them.

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