Over the years, we’ve been blessed with innumerable breathtaking images from the pursuit of science – from the unimaginably huge Pillars of Creation to the endlessly tiny Mandelbrot Fractals. But some of these images have taken on an iconic status, instantly recognisable to schoolchildren and Republican presidential candidates alike. The problem is, a lot of these iconic science images are more icon than science. Here’s a few you might have seen before.
The Rutherford Model
What you think it means: This is an atom.
What’s wrong with it: This model is a century out of date.
Back in 1911, there was still considerable debate about the structure of the atom. J. J. Thompson had discovered the electron in 1897, demonstrating that there were fundamental particles much smaller than an atom, and conceived of the Plum Pudding Model, imagining the atom to be a cloud of positive charge in which electrons hung out like the fruit in a plum pudding. Ernest Rutherford advanced things in 1911, showing atoms had a central charge concentrated into a tiny, dense spot in the centre of the atom (the nucleus), overthrowing the dessert-based model. After a few throwaway comments about planets and moons, someone sketched out a small nucleus surrounded by rings of orbiting electrons. Despite the fact that another scientist, Niels Bohr, had put forward a more accurate model, the Rutherford Model caught the public imagination and was inaugurated as the official symbol of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The discrepancy is referenced by Alan Moore in Watchmen, where Dr Manhattan rejects the costume bearing the atomic rings and instead marks his forehead with the symbol for hydrogen, as per Bohr’s model.
The March of Progress
What you think it means: This is evolution.
What’s wrong with it: This is not how evolution works.
Despite competition from a little fish with legs, there is no more a potent and popular symbol for evolution than this column of apes striding purposefully into the future. The problem is, that’s exactly what it isn’t. The March of Progress was drawn by illustrator Rudolph Zallinger for the “Early Man” volume of the popular Life Nature Library series by Time-Life books. Faced with the task of compressing several million years of human evolution into a single graphic, Zallinger chose to place the figures in a steady queue, starting with the oldest, and ending with the most recent. The original title was “The Road to Homo Sapiens”, which arguably even more inaccurate than its popular name, as both imply that our species is somehow the culmination of millions of years of directed evolution. The graphic flatters our perception that we are the crown in the tree of life, rather than one of its many side branches. In fact, the original image features fifteen hominids, including a few evolutionary blind alleys. It was not supposed to imply that each one led to the other, or that humans travelled through discrete stages of evolution to arrive where they were today. But, as the book’s author F. Clark Howell noted: “…it was read that way by viewers…. The graphic overwhelmed the text. It was so powerful and emotional”.
The World Map
What you think it means: This is what the world looks like.
What’s wrong with it: This is not what the world looks like.
I know what you’re thinking: “Surely, Frank, you’re taking the mickey. That’s the World Map! Everyone knows that’s what the world looks like!” But it’s not so. This is certainly one of the most popular way ways of showing our globe on a map, but it’s also grossly distorted. The problem stems from trying to squash down 3D surface onto a 2D plane: it’s just not possible to accurately represent our world in a flat rectangle. You can try it yourself if you like, with deflated football. See if you can press it flat without cutting it up into pieces. If you’ve ever watched the in-flight animation of your progress on a long haul trip, you might have wondered why the pilot seems to be flying in a long curve to your destination rather than a straight line. In fact, you are flying in a straight line, it’s the map that’s curved. Mind. Blown.
Two-dimensional representations of the Earth are called “projections“, and the one above is known as the Mercator Projection. It works by wrapping a cylinder of tracing paper around the Earth and drawing on the countries as you see them through the paper. At the equator, where the cylinder touches the Earth, distortion is zero. But the further away you get from the equator, the more messed up things look. Greenland looks as big as South America, even though it has actually only one eighth the area. As a result of Greenland, North America and Russia becoming gigantic, while Africa and South America look tiny, the Mercator map has been decried as quasi-imperialist, distorting the world to flatter Western egos. Unfortunately there is no perfect solution to fixing the globe on a 2D map, and many! different! projections! exist!, depending on what the author thought was the most important variable to conserve: area, shape, distance, contiguity, and so forth. Why not seek out some of the more unusual ones, such as Werner’s effort from 1515, which imagines the world shaped like a love heart?
The Nautilus Shell
What you think it means: A fine example of the Fibonacci spiral in nature!
What’s wrong with it: It does not follow a Fibonacci spiral.
Maths in nature is truly a beautiful thing, but unfortunately some people seem intent on embellishing that beauty. The Fibonacci sequence is made by adding each number to the previous one, to get: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so forth. If you make squares with sides the same length as the numbers in this sequence, you’ll find they nestle themselves into a rather delightful spiral pattern. There are lots of places in nature that this pattern crops up, from pineapples to pine cones. However, the nautilus shell isn’t one of them. Despite resembling a Fibonacci spiral, it’s in fact a much tighter logarithmic spiral. You can see the Fibonacci spiral overlaid on a nautilus shell here, and marvel at how closely they don’t match. The author of that post notes the odd voice has been raised to point out this discrepancy, and I note that the one linked came from a retired mathematician, so clearly there is some powerful lobby capable of ruining mathematician’s careers that is vested in keeping the Fibonacci-nautilus myth alive.
The Solar System
What you think it means: This is what the Solar System looks like.
What’s wrong with it: This is not what the Solar System looks like.
The above image is taken from Wikipedia’s entry on the Solar System, and I’ll give you five seconds to point out as many flaws as you can. All done? Where do we start? Clearly our sun is dying, its once-dazzling surface now an ember, and there’s some other star, several times larger / closer / brighter than our own sun, tucked just out of view in the upper right frame. To be honest, I find that kind of geocentrist shading interesting more than anything else, but it’s not what we’re here to discuss. Similarly, I’m going to ignore the presence of “dwarf planets”, which everyone knows is a concession by International Astronomical Union to keep Arizona happy. No, I’m talking about the fact the planets seem to be breathing down one another’s necks, Jupiter within fist-bumping distance of Mars, the asteroid belt apparently slipped from the gaunt hips of our emaciated sun.
Now, there’s a very good reason that the planets are often presented squished up together like this: it’s because black ink is really expensive. Given the choice between illustrating planets as pixel-sized dots on a single page, or going all-in on a 30 page wide fold-out showing planets in all their glory and scale, most artists prefer to cut out all that “empty” space and bring celestial bodies into frame. It’s an obvious design solution, but one that nevertheless impacts upon the public’s understanding of astronomy. Even though the Wikipedia page makes pains to point out that the scale in this image has been messed about, the industry-wide practice of moving planets about trickles down into public consciousness. Want proof? Simply ask people how far the Moon is from the Earth (embedded for win:)