Giving Meaning to Data

An interesting article today about how NASA manages to turn overwhelming amounts of data into meaningful symbols:

It looks like a post-impressionist painting by an artist such as Van Gogh – but it’s actually a Nasa map of heat in our sun.

The visualisation technique is one of the space agency’s methods for dealing with large amounts of data – here, the 12-hour cycle of heating and cooling in the surface of the sun.

Each pixel contains a wealth of information about the changing temperatures – and offers clues to the mechanisms that drive the temperature and movements of the sun’s atmosphere, its ‘corona’.

The visualisation technique is one of the space agency's methods for dealing with large amounts of data - here, the 12-hour cycle of heating and cooling in the surface of the sun

‘A crucial, and often underappreciated, facet of science lies in deciding how to turn the raw numbers of data into useful, understandable information – often through graphs and images,’ says a space agency spokesperson.

‘Such visualisation techniques are needed for everything from making a map of planetary orbits based on nightly measurements of where they are in the sky to colorizing normally invisible light such as X-rays to produce images of the sun.’

The images were created by Nicholeen Viall, a scientist at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Centre.

Viall used high-resolution imagery provided by Nasa’s orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory to combine light in 10 different wavelengths.

The combination of colours show whether areas of the sun are warming or cooling over a 12-hour period – with reds, yellows and oranges, showing areas that cool.

Because most of her pictures – taken over a slow time exposure – show the sun cooling, Viall concludes that it must heat in rapid bursts, then cool slowly.

‘Any kind of steady heating throughout the corona would have shown up in Viall’s images, so she concludes that the heating must be quick and impulsive – so fast that it doesn’t show up in her images,’ says a Nasa spokersperson.

‘This lends credence to those theories that say numerous nanobursts of energy help heat the corona.’

This is also what a painter’s brain does: simplify overwhelming amounts of data pouring onto the retina by filtering it through consciousness.  The most important and noteworthy aspects are recorded, in order that the viewer sees this subjective perception of the world alongside a reminder about a familiar object, now seen in a new way.   The creator is trying to show us something he understands better than us either because he spent a lifetime digging into the stellar activities or because it is his own perception.  The process of investigating also takes place in one’s own mind, consciousness amplifying not distant galaxies but its own self.

The significance of a person choosing to go through such a process to communicate underlies everything.  Why was a sign made, why a paper written, why a painting created?  The difference between a utilitarian, pedestrian aim and a creative on is understood immediately by the viewer.  In Van Gogh’s case, instead of stupidly copying every detail of reality and erasing himself, he tried to show the world behind it which lent to every object its energy and harmony.  Without this hidden world, the Earthly one loses meaning and becomes a dry parade of facts, each no more important than the next, robbing the very experience desired by an intelligent mind.  The unarguable aspect of any human creation is that someone decided to make it in the first place.

A very human enterprise: significance is contained in the subject matter and self expression easily overcomes lack of skill, showing itself to be the more important of the two. Enthusiasm working unaided is an endearing feature of art, one which also renders it encouraging for the observer (Olivia, age 4)

Dryly reading a teleprompter and feebly attempting to make one’s voice sound interested using practiced vocal tics and faux-sincere hand movements à la Tony Blair is one thing, delivering a riveting speech from the heart, laden with emotion and belief is a different act altogether, in which risks are taken as a man trusts in the force of his own personality to make something as clear to others as it feels to himself.  It cannot be achieved without belief in the value of one’s self.  While in the former process, we could do away altogether with the human element, a demeaning example to put before humanity.  Any process we participate in but which ends up emphasising how useless and redundant we are as a conscious entity is commonly called “soul destroying”.

A few lines suffice to convey an authoritative hat, the tragedy of a wooden leg, and gigantic boat with anchor.  The skull and crossbones and jaunty earring assure the efficient but cheerful nature of your impending demise (James, 4)

Assembly line work has this same numbing effect on self-esteem; the invigorating act of creation is soul-reinforcing by virtue not of skill but of a self-expression which all of us can muster, from the age when we can hold a pencil or utter a sound.

Realism would have been as destructive to his art as to van Gogh’s own mind.  As in NASA’s case, “why” assumes primary importance over “how”: what aspect of reality is one mind trying to communicate with these now-abstract symbols?  Is science damaged by this display of human idea?  Of course not!  Observation is an effort to decode the significance of what has been placed before us: what is spirituality, but an effort to interpret the world in the same way?  Science uses instruments to amplify the tiny vibrations and bring them to mind, while spirituality relies on consciousness, using meditation and other self discplines to amplify its scope.

Both rely on mind to transmit with enough impact to register memorably on another mind, meaning the orbit of religion, and its pre-dating of literacy has had to nearer approach the weighty problem of communicating.  This is a conclusion which atheist de Botton makes very clear in Religion for Atheists, an excellent book concluding that the sheer ugliness of uniformity becomes damaging to the soul, and without learning from religion’s modus operandi, secularism faces a rejection which any celebration in a morgue deserves.

The attempt to alienate mind has damaged science by giving it the misleading appearance of disinterest in humanity; its endless stacks of peer-reviewed, heavily referenced, third-person papers render fact after fact with such numbing blandness that what should be a finely honed point becomes a powder puff. The illusion of impartiality is in any case sabotaged by the fact that the experiment must have emerged from intent and purpose, which adds a disagreeable taste of deception to the already unpalateable.  What would be so awful about admitting a personal aim, and even sounding enthusiastic?  Will it harm truth, to be excited about it?

In the end, whatever the observer gets from art or science is a matter of his perception and that of the originator, who as NASA’s novel technique makes clear needs to step in, and step away from reality to become effective.  The further away from dry fact, the more the reliance on the sturdiness of a reality we impose from within.  For better or worse, we present ourselves along with every experiment.

This effort to communicate with whatever unique method we choose, lends significance to all our work.  “Why” can easily be the only question worth asking.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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