CSWA workshop: Gonzo scientists get visual

Canadian Science Writers' AssociationIn a panel discussion at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association conference, a group of scientists show off the latest accomplishments in visual communication, from dinosaurs that build themselves to augmented reality to a digital orgasm. Read about other CSWA workshops here.

By Dr. Alex Bielak

Live from New York, and via the magic of Skype, a man in a paper hat with squiggly bits hanging off it suddenly appeared on the screen. So began the session billed as “From web and TV graphics to 3D Museum display animations to science stunts/theatre /and other guerrilla street promo.”
 Live from New York, Gonzo scientist John Bohannon, in a non-AR cellphone picture by Alex Bielak
Live from New York, Gonzo scientist John Bohannon. Photo by Alex Bielak

The man in the hat was introduced by session chair, and CSWA VP Peter McMahon, as John Bohannon, AAAS correspondent and gonzo scientist. He was speaking from the set of “Green Porno”, where he is serving as scientific consultant for Isabella Rossellini’s new series of “Seduce Me” mini-episodes in the Green Porno series. [Full disclosure: the writer – an unabashed convert – was part of an extra-ordinary Green Porno event organized by Bohannon at the 2009 TIFF and detailed in his AAAS column.]

Bohannon is helping Rosselini explore the unconventional and sometimes brutal seduction rituals of critters like ducks, snakes, bedbugs and cuttlefish. He said “these films might be an occasion to have “that conversation [with your kids] in the kitchen”, adding that the films might be a “bit much” for North American audiences. That said, they are “unique and valuable” in terms of science communication, and the preceding (third) tranche of Green Porno films had a significant conservation message.

What’s next? “Busting the dolphin myth”, says Bohannon. “They are party animals with some of the most bizarre sex acts in the animal world. Dolphins invented the vibrator.”

Alex Tirabasso resurrects a Triceritops
Alex Tirabasso resurrects a Triceratops. Photo by Peter McMahon

3D models were the subject of the next presentation by 3D imaging production specialist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, and Paul Bloskie, co-ordinator of Arius 3D Imaging Center Collection Services. They showed how 3D colour laser technology, licensed from the National Research Council, was used both in building exhibits at the museum and in working with scientists. The two groups worked to imagine how bones fitted and moved together, and collaborated on developing visuals for peer-reviewed papers, exhibits and TV programs alike.

Later that day at the museum we could see the results of their work in the re-construction of Puijila darwini, a semi-aquatic seal-like carnivore, and the “resurrection” of Chasmosaurus  (where Tirabasso “‘animated‘ a three-dimensional scan of a scale model of the dinosaur, placing it in a realistic setting that represents its habitat.”) We also saw the 3D scan that helped in positioning the new blue whale skeleton now displayed in the new Water exhibit at the museum.

The next presentation featured mind-blowing graphics that appeared to leap off the screen. Augmented Reality (AR) is coming to a mobile phone near you said Shockley Au, AR specialist with Search Engine People.

AR overlays digital information onto a real-world environment, much like “virtual graffiti”, according to a recent piece in New Scientist. The technology has already become familiar to many in broadcast applications like NASCAR (where information about drivers is superimposed on each car in the frame), and the NFL, where we are used to seeing virtual “1st and 10” lines.

AR-capable phones are expected to become ubiquitous: simply pointing at something with your phone will yield information about the subject on the screen and “life will be awesome,” Shockley said.

Amin's illustration of the female orgasm
Sonya Amin’s illustration of a female brain during orgasm. Photo by Peter McMahon

The final speaker was , of AXS studio, whose team of trained medical illustrators produce detailed medical animations. Amin recently ventured into the world of TV (with animations for the excellent series Regenesis) and movies, producing footage that runs on a computer monitor in the background of a scene in the new sci-fi horror film Splice.

Noting that they like to see the script as early on in the process as possible, and acknowledging that they still produce a lot of “dry” videos for pharmaceutical and medical device companies, Amin concluded by showing striking visualizations of a brain reacting to THC and then, the piece de resistance, the female brain experiencing orgasm, adding “Take that, Isabella!”

The presentations shared a common link: the value of illustration to both the science community and the media. As for Bohannon’s hat: part of a jumping spider’s bum, soon to be featured in a new “Seduce Me” episode.

Dr. Alex Bielak leads the knowledge translation and brokering activities of Environment Canada’s Science and Technology Liaison Division, and after a long stint as Board Member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association stepped down last year ago into the stygian darkness and mere membership.