The art of insect photography, a tutorial

November 8, 2011

Alex Wild, of Myrmecos, and Alex Wild Photography, has fashioned his post-Ph. D. life into a career in insect photography. He is now an evangelist for taking better photos.

Check out a video of his recent presentation at UC. Davis. Or use this link to access his slide show.

Takehome: its about lenses, lighting, and composition.

My new favorite global map

September 18, 2011



Most scientists I know are map-geeks. What’s not to love about a 2-dimensional abstraction that captures gobs of information in an economical way? For those of us who love biogeography–the study of the distribution of life across the planet–how one renders the globe is vital to understanding where and why the diversity is. And the Mercator projection, the view of the world one sees from most North American classrooms, leaves, let us say, a little bit to be desired in that department. In the Mercator, the area of the continents around the equator–where most of the diversity of life can be found, is shrunk relative to poles. The story goes that Mercator, a German, devised a map that made Germany look as big as possible (but, in a karmic backfire, made Russia look even bigger, and let’s not even get started about Greenland).


So enter the The Peirce Quincunial, where the equator is a square. Sheer beauty.

Big tip of the hat to Victoria Johnson at The Awl.

5 books on design for every graduate student

March 9, 2008

pillar1.jpgI’ve added five great books to the Reading List page on the importance of thinking like a designer. Too often when scientists communicate–in seminars, lectures or in journals–they assume content will carry the day.

But quality, as we all know, equals good content * good design.

One big plus: these books practice what they preach. They are a joy to read, browse, flip through, or pore through. They belong to that rare class of books that you will always keep at hand, a perfect companion to revisit when you have 30 minutes and a steaming cup of coffee.

QotD Roger Mandel

August 25, 2007

“Quite broadly, I think of the fine arts as a method by which humans ask the big questions not necessarily knowing the answers, whereas design enables people to create answers quite concretely. A strength of RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)’s balanced curriculum is that the fine artists help the designers consider the big unanswereable questions as they work on their chairs and buildings, while the designers inform the fine artists about how to make their ineffable expressions tangible. Art’s about more than being creative, it’s about developing a system of thought, by which you can solve complex problems to improve aspects of the world’s concerns. More concretely, proportion, functionality, texture, and surface beauty are broad design attributes anyone should learn because they enrich visual literacy and acuity. Art education without elements of design is not useful in the end–which is why art teachers have had a hard time justifying to boards of education and parents that the visual arts are important in the curriculum.”

ht I.D. magazine, September/October 2007

How would you rewrite this paragraph if one replaced “fine arts” with “sciences”? Talk amongst yourselves. MK

Flowcharts, how do I love thee?

February 25, 2007


I haven’t used flowcharts much in my teaching or research, but this may change soon. First, there is this marvelous mashup of flowcharts with web pages to teach copyright law. Biologists have long used keys to simplify identifying critters, but I can easily imagine using flowcharts to teach, for example, the experimental results that would allow you to identify different kinds of population regulation.

Perhaps the real utility of flowcharts for graduate students may lie in the underused but powerful practice of Strong Inference. SI endorses building a logic tree when planning your research so that each experiment tests as many different hypotheses as possible. The end result is that each experiment produced maximum bang for your research buck. I am seeing more and more flowcharts in the NSF grants I review.

How would you flowchart your dissertation research?

Finally, flowcharts are effective ways of detecting patterns in otherwise seemingly inscrutable behavior.

Read the rest of this entry »

Warning, graphic humor

January 9, 2007

Part of good communication is presenting compelling information in a novel, transparent way. Two sites do this particularly well, combining graphics-geek-chic with sophisticated messages.

Omnibrain highlights Why we have pie charts. This one is entitled “Why things happen.”:

Jessica Hagy’s Indexed is consistently one of the cleverest blogs around. A couple examples of her work:

from Indexed

from Indexed

Five ways to start drawing again

December 18, 2006

As we talked about a couple of days ago, scientific communication, in your teaching and your writing, is more and more about blending images with text (as always, quality = design * content). But for most of us our last art class was in fifth grade (or earlier, depending on how philistine your school district was with the budget cuts). These five suggestions are about getting you to see like an artist again (remember how much fun that was?).

1) Buy Drawing on the right side of the brain. You’re probably beginning the blissful holiday break with the promise of a little more time, charcoal grey skies, and the need to hide from the family every once in a while ;-). This workbook contains exercises guaranteed to awaken your sleeping artist. Sure, my neurobiologist friends cringe when they hear her “right-brain, left-brain” explanations, but, hey, if it works empirically, the theory can still be wrong.

2) Start a clip folder. When you are beginning to imagine what a manuscript or lecture will look like, imagine the illustrations you would like to have, not just the text. So when you’re cruising the web and you see just such an image copy it into this folder (add the attribution to the file name of course).

3) Carry around a cheap camera and use it. Digital cameras not only allow you to build your your photo library, just the act of looking through the viewfinder/screen causes you to work on your composition chops.

4) Organize your photos. If you can’t find ’em, they’re invisible. Google’s free Picasa on your PC, and iPhoto on your Mac are chock full of tagging features. And tag your photos soon after you collect them; add this task to your weekly review (more on that soon).

5) Invest in graphics tablet. Graphics tablets allow you to draw on your computer with a real (OK, virtual) pen. Photoshop and Keynote presentation software is perfectly suitable for most of your illustration needs, and allow you to export jpgs. Graphics tables are a heckuva lot easier than trying to sketch with your mouse. They come in all shapes and sizes, but Wacom has a nice cheap one for about $80.

Reading a book for the pictures

December 16, 2006

When I was growing up, it was a pretty common slam of a person’s intellectual bonafides if “He’d only read a book for the pictures.”. Yet try explaining how to tie your shoe, safely slice a bagel, or identify a downy woodpecker without a picture. Graphics guru Edward Tufte in his latest book Beautiful Evidence illustrates how Galileo’s discoveries and insights spread not just on their merits, but because these discoveries were described with panache and gorgeously illustrated.

Galileo’s illustration of the moon, from The Galileo Project.
Galileo's moon illustration from The Galileo Project--

The biological sciences also enjoyed the work of scientists who worked on their artistic chops. At our History of Science collection you can page through gorgeous elephant folios dating from the 15th centure that captured for the first time, in words and pictures, the structure of an insect eye

OU History of Science Collection
detailed drawing of the eye of a housefly, from the University of Oklahoma History of Science collection

or the life cycle of a frog

OU History of Science Collection
Frog metamorphosis illustration from History of Science Collection, University of Oklahoma

Note these illustrations didn’t support the description of insect vision and amphibian metamorphosis, they were integral parts of the argument.

Why the intellectual snobbery of text-only education? One can imagine that it was a sin of necessity in the era of the printing press, where every illustration required a specially prepared plate. Until quite recently, science journals were pretty skimpy with the figures: limiting authors to black and white graphs that all had to be specially set at the printers. And woe to the poor schlub who found that the outlier in Figure 1 was in fact a random inkdrop. If the paper had already been accepted for publication it was a time for much groveling to the editor.

Well, the web has changed all that. Suddenly, in the last 2% of the timespan since Johannes Gutenberg got his fingers dirty, we have free, full color publishing allowing us to mix text and print however we like. And even the journals are getting less stingy about publishing pictures and illustrations (or at least allowing you to link to them).

So where does this leave you, the young scientist? Able to fully exploit this visual revolution, that’s what. Do you think we’ve maxed out the all the different ways to conveying scientific discoveries in clear and compelling ways? Neither do I.

Unfortunately, our K-12 curricula prepares us for the intellectual world of our parents and grandparents. And this text-centric culture apparently doesn’t believe art is that important. In Daniel Pink’s excellent Whole New Mind we hear of a fellow named Gordon MacKenzie, an artist from Hallmark cards who would visit classrooms around Kansas City. When he saw art taped to the walls, he would ask “Who’s the artist?”. If he was visiting a kindergarden, all the hands in the room would go up.

By second grade, three quarters of the hands would shoot up.

By the sixth grade, no hands.

Sound familiar? When was the last time you took out a pencil and drew something? Remember how captivating such an activity was when you were younger? Why did you give it up? So this holiday season take out your Ludwig pastels and a big sheet of paper, open your new copy of Photoshop CS3, and sharpen your Durwint HBs. Its time to build a new, more colorful, Academy.

And repeat to yourself, Quality = Design * Content.

Twitter vs. Flow

December 9, 2006

A favorite Vonnegut short story depicted a super-egalitatrian world where all were equalized by enforcing the lowest common denominator. Dancers wore heavy chains and intellectuals wore headsets that, at random moments, blasted a crashing din.

As we strive for coherence and creativity it often feels like Vonnegut’s virtual headsets rest uneasily on our respective crania. I mean, how do we get anything done when we are so constantly, perniciously, interrupted?

The web, needless to say, has been a mixed blessing, getting-into-flow-wise.

Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users reports on twitter the latest webmeme dedicated to break us out of productive immersion. It literally ask you to report, in real time, what you’re up to. That’s it. And in return, you get to see what thousands of procrastinators are doing. In real time.

And by linking to it, I have performed my deed as vector for today. Bwahahaha.

Sierra conveys the increasing speed and efficiency at which these webmemes operate. She does it through excellent graphical design. Imagine any part of the following graphs that could be deleted without eroding information content. And it is very informative content.

The Twitter Curve, how webmemes are increasingly combatting flow

But webmemes only work if you give them the opportunity. Turn off your email. Turn off your browser. If need be, award yourself 5 minutes of browsing for every hour of work. For, as Sierra points out (in more truly excellent graphs), we can blame others for our interruptions, but when its just you and your wifi connection, the fault, dear Brutus….

Who we blame for our lack of flow vs. the fault dear Brutus...