Science visualisations

This is very cool:


Bio Visions – Harvard

Check out the video ‘The inner life of the cell’.

I probably learnt more about biology in watching this 8 minute video than I would have done in a whole university module. It’s a great project; we need more like it. It got me thinking about visual learning.

Humans seem to be primarily visual animals, and as such we can learn a lot from watching a good visualisation of something. When I read a text book or try to understand a new concept in Physics, I try to mentally imagine a model of the world. I’m using analogies and manipulations of 3-dimensional abstract objects, but I’m always painting a picture. I wonder if having that picture painted for us can help us learn faster.

One could argue that different people learn by different methods, which I’m sure they do. Some people are audio, textual or mathematical learners. But I feel that the standard, classical lecture-style learning in which we are taught most of science is probably also the most inefficient way of getting the information from A to B (i.e. it resonates strongly with very few learners). I think a visual method may not suit everyone, but it would resonate more strongly with a larger number of learners.

In physics, I’ve seen a few 3d visualisations of solid state phenomena, but they certainly aren’t commonplace. I really think that visualisations can help with understanding some pretty abstract concepts, such as the transition of electrons from a classical ‘wave packet’ or ‘particle’ description to a macroscopic quantum wavefunction during a condensation through the critical temperature. Try explaining that to someone who has never encountered any of the concepts. Now imagine that you could project the little video that you run inside your head everytime you visualise the process, and talk through that instead. I’m pretty sure it would make explaining things a lot easier.

There’s a slightly subtle point here: Does the very building of your OWN internal visualisation of an effect help you to truly understand it? If you were just shown someone else’s idea you might not have shared the same thought process and building of the model to get to the final ‘understanding’ stage. Could it even worsen the situation, rendering you biased against developing your own different yet valid visual interpretation?

Is taking away the extra stage of building a world model through internal visualisation really something that would deprive people of insight and deep understanding? Or would that insight just come about all the more quickly?

I’m surprised that the traditional style of lecturing has perservered for so long. One might have thought that powerful and beautiful visualisations of Physics would have pervaded our attempts at conveying a model of the world to students and colleagues.

I think that two hurdles stand in the way.

1.) Existing teachers and lecturers are not accustomed to using new techniques ‘The way you learnt is the way you teach’.

2.) There is an activation barrier to using these new technlogies because they are pretty hard to get going in the first place.

In a subsequent post I might discuss possible ways in which we can do something about this instead of just going off on a complete brain-ramble which is what I seem to have done here 🙂

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