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ScienceBlogs fans will have surely noticed the stunning images featured on our Life Science, Physical Science (above), Environment, Humanities and Technology channels. They’re taken from On the Surface of Things: Images of the Extraordinary in Science, by Harvard organic chemist George Whitesides and photographer Felice Frankel.

Frankel, who heads the Envisioning Science program at Harvard’s Initiative in Innovative Computing, recently chatted with me about the role of design in scientific communication.

Why do you call your work design, but not art?

This is my baggage, in a way. This whole art-science connection can be very exciting. There are some artists who are inspired by science, and it’s wonderful. But what they do is they take a line that they see in the science and just expand it without any…I’m going to say “reverence” to the information in the science.

So that’s why it’s very important for people not to look at my pictures as art. That’s not my intention. The images are not about me or my emotions. They’re images of science that I’ve used photographic tools to bring out. I’m not designing the science. I’m designing the images for communication. There’s a purpose for my composition: not just to make art but to communicate what’s going on in the images.

(More below the fold…)

So you really have to understand the science that’s going on, then, before you create the design?

Absolutely. And that’s where my science background comes in. I see this whole issue of representing science (whether photographically or in an illustration)…the very nature of that process teaches you science.

Does that mean that art is the best way to teach science?

Yes, I think so. We have a grant from the NSF called “Picturing to Learn.” We already have about 4,000 drawings. The idea behind it is that when you ask someone to visually explain an idea in science for the purpose of communication—a very important caviat—the person making that drawing or that photograph has to understand the science.

Our next goal is to get kids to capture images of nature and everything around them. Everything is about science, even if you take a picture of a table. I’m looking now at my black table. Why is it black? That’s all about optics. We don’t have this funded yet, but we are working with a group in Australia to create a global initiative getting middle school and high school kids to capture everything around them and ask a scientific question about it. And then the hope is that we’re going to get Harvard alums and other retired scientists to respond to the question.

Asking questions about the science is exactly what I do all the time. It’s what makes my job the best in the world, because I’m constantly learning. I’m not embarrassed to ask questions about what I’m seeing. And you’d be surprised how many times a scientist isn’t quite clear about what’s happening.

Actually, one of our bloggers [PhysioProf] wanted me to ask you about that. Why do some of the smartest scientists, even Nobel Prize winners, have so little appreciation for visual design?

Right. I can’t tell you how much I agree. There’s always this concern that if something is presented beautifully then it can’t be taken seriously. Though I’m seeing two changes: One, I am much more welcome now, in labs, than I was when I first started. And they’re listening to me. It’s been a hard sell, in a way, but very smart people are seeing that just because they understand all these formulae and text doesn’t mean that the listener does. Even if the listeners are their own colleagues. Two: I’ve seen a tremendous change in the way younger scientists are presenting their work. They’re doing a fabulous job, and really see why it’s important.

Frankly, it’s ultimately about funding. If you can explain to somebody what you’re doing, and they really get it, then they’re going to be more open to funding. I think it’s going to be the way to show Congress, too. It’s a disaster now, the way they’re cutting science. I firmly believe that if we took more time to explain science in an accessible, visual vocabulary, then we’d get them to fund more.

Do you have a favorite science photo?

Not really. Most people like whatever they’re working on now. And right now George [Whitesides] and I are working on our next book, No Small Matter. It’s all about nanoscience and quantum mechanics. Of course, I can’t take pictures of quantum mechanics, so it’s an incredibly challenging project. It becomes all about metaphor.

Do you think some scientific fields, like maybe quantum physics, or cosmology or math, are more in need of good visualization?

Yes, it’s a good point. One concern that’s always been with me is that just because I can’t make a picture of it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be paid attention to. Not to be dramatic, but I see it as a kind of moral dilemma on my part. I can only make pictures of things that we can see, so I’m only bringing attention to those things.

To get at the other things, we have to create some sort of metaphor, so that the viewer can say, “Hey, I think I’m getting this a little bit.” I’m never going to totally understand, say, what entanglement is. I don’t have the mathematics [background] and the experiments about it are all deductive. But I can create a pictorial analogy.

So have you come up with an analogy for entanglement?

i-923f88776b28c6f7f17c2138c19e9b34-nano.jpgNot yet! A quick example of one is something that’s now at MoMA. I wanted to make a picture of a nanotube. There are gazillions of SEM [scanning electron microscope] images, but I didn’t want to do just that. So what I did was I printed a hexagonal pattern, representing carbon atoms, on transparent paper. Then I took the paper in my hands and rolled it into a cylinder. Then I put the cylinder on a flat scanner and captured an image. The final image [at right] combined a few of those in Photoshop.

An interesting point: in the process of rolling it into a cylinder, I realized that I could roll it in various ways depending on where the edges met. It gave different orientations of the carbon hexagons. So I had to do a little research, to figure out which way was correct. And it turns out that you can do it a few ways when they make real nanotubes. And not only can you make them in a few ways, but whatever way you decide has a tremendous effect on the conductivity in the nanotube. The larger point—the process of making this taught me something. That is so cool. I love it.

…to learn more about Frankel’s career and philosophy, check out this profile from the New York Times.