The data visualization studio at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., was awarded first place for its video entry in a visualization challenge sponsored by the journal Science and the National Science Foundation.

The winning entry was created by the Scientific Visualization Studio to show how the particles from solar storms bombard Earth and how the sun's heat energy drives Earth's climate and weather. It won first place in the video category in the 2013 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

The visualization was created for a movie called "Dynamic Earth," a full-length planetarium film produced by Thomas Lucas and narrated by actor Liam Neeson.  The film is showing around the world to an estimated viewership of 500,000 people. 

While the full movie highlights many aspects of Earth's complexity, the contribution from the SVS depicts the vast scale of the sun's influence on Earth, from the flowing particles of the solar wind and the fury of coronal mass ejections to the winds and currents driven by the solar heating of the atmosphere and ocean.

"Moving through these flows gives the viewer a sense of grandeur in the order and chaos exhibited by these dynamic systems," said Horace Mitchell, director of the Scientific Visualization Studio.

The visualization represents a high point in the SVS's work in recent years to visualize flows - ocean currents, winds, the movement of glaciers and ice sheets. By using lines and arrows to represent velocities of water, air and ice - and in the case of "Dynamic Earth," the solar wind - the SVS visualizers were able to produce a new way to envision these unseen forces.

"Usually we visualize things like temperature in the ocean or clouds in the sky. You see these things change, but that's not really visualizing the flow. That's visualizing something reacting to the flow," Mitchell said. "You can't really see currents in the ocean. But in your mind's eye you can picture how the currents would move as arrows or lines. And that's what we developed."

The winning visualization was created by SVS visualizers Greg Shirah, Tom Bridgman and Horace Mitchell, with assistance from Lori Perkins, Cindy Starr, Ernest Wright, Trent Schindler and Stuart Snodgrass. The elements of the four-minute segment were chosen in collaboration with Dynamic Earth writer and producer Thomas Lucas.

In showing the solar wind, atmospheric winds and ocean currents, the SVS relied on three modeling efforts that NASA leads or takes part in.

For the solar wind, the visualizers used data from the Community Coordinated Modeling Center at Goddard, a multi-agency partnership focused on improving our understanding of space weather.

To show Earth's winds, the visualizers relied on data from the Modern Era Retrospective Reanalysis, an effort based at Goddard to combine more than 30 years of satellite observations and modeling into a unified data set. And for ocean currents, the visualizers used data from the ECCO-2 modeling effort, a partnership between NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston.

Mitchell credits the advancement of models such as these for allowing the data visualizers to push the boundaries of what they can create.

"They are so professional now," Mitchell said, "that you can get these amazing effects out of them."

Computer scientists at Harvard and cognitive scientists at MIT team up to settle a debate over 'chart junk'

It's easy to spot a "bad" data visualization—one packed with too much text, excessive ornamentation, gaudy colors, and clip art. Design guru Edward Tufte derided such decorations as redundant at best, useless at worst, labeling them "chart junk." Yet a debate still rages among visualization experts: Can these reviled extra elements serve a purpose?

Taking a scientific approach to design, researchers from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are offering a new take on that debate. The same design elements that attract so much criticism, they report, can also make a visualization more memorable.

Detailed results were presented this week at the IEEE Information Visualization (InfoVis) conference in Atlanta, hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

For lead author Michelle Borkin, a doctoral student at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), memorability has a particular importance:

"I spend a lot of my time reading these scientific papers, so I have to wonder, when I walk away from my desk, what am I going to remember? Which of the figures and visualizations in these publications are going to stick with me?"

But it's more than grad-school anxiety. Working at the interface of computer science and psychology, Borkin specializes in the visual representation of data, looking for the best ways to communicate and interpret complex information. The applications of her work have ranged from astronomy to medical diagnostics and may already help save lives.

Her adviser, Hanspeter Pfister, An Wang Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS, was intrigued by the chart junk debate, which has flared up on design blogs and at visualization conferences year after year.

Together, they turned to Aude Oliva, a principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and a cognitive psychologist by training. Oliva's lab has been studying visual memory for about six years now. Her team has found that in photographs, faces and human-centric scenes are typically easy to remember; landscapes are not.

"All of us are sensitive to the same kinds of images, and we forget the same kind as well," Oliva says. "We like to believe our memories are unique, that they're like the soul of a person, but in certain situations it's as if we have the same algorithm in our heads that is going to be sensitive to a particular type of image. So when you find a result like this in photographs, you want to know: is it generalizable to many types of materials—words, sound, images, graphs?"

"Speaking with [Pfister] and his group, it became very exciting, the idea that we could study what makes a visualization memorable or not," Oliva recalls. "If it turned out to be the same for everyone, we thought this would be a win-win result."

For Oliva's group, it would provide more evidence of cognitive similarities in the brain's visual processing, from person to person. For Pfister's group, it could suggest that certain design principles make visualizations inherently more memorable than others.

With Harvard students Azalea A. Vo '13 and Shashank Sunkavalli SM '13, as well as MIT graduate students Zoya Bylinskii and Phillip Isola, the team designed a large-scale study—in the form of an online game—to rigorously measure the memorability of a wide variety of visualizations. They collected more than 5,000 charts and graphics from scientific papers, design blogs, newspapers, and government reports and manually categorized them by a wide range of attributes. Serving them up in brief glimpses—just one second each—to participants via Amazon Mechanical Turk, the researchers tested the influence of features like color, density, and content themes on users' ability to recognize which ones they had seen before.

The results meshed well with Oliva's previous results, but added several new insights.

"A visualization will be instantly and overwhelmingly more memorable if it incorporates an image of a human-recognizable object—if it includes a photograph, people, cartoons, logos—any component that is not just an abstract data visualization," says Pfister. "We learned that any time you have a graphic with one of those components, that's the most dominant thing that affects the memorability."

Visualizations that were visually dense proved memorable, as did those that used many colors. Other results were more surprising.

"You'd think the types of charts you'd remember best are the ones you learned in school—the bar charts, pie charts, scatter plots, and so on," Borkin says. "But it was the opposite."

Unusual types of charts, like tree diagrams, network diagrams, and grid matrices, were actually more memorable.

"If you think about those types of diagrams—for example, tree diagrams that show relationships between species, or diagrams that explain a molecular chemical process—every one of them is going to be a little different, but the branching structures feel very natural to us," explains Borkin. "That combination of the familiar and the unique seems to influence the memorability."

The best type of chart to use will always depend on the data, but for designers who are required to work within a certain style—for example, to achieve a recognizable consistency within a magazine—the results may be reassuring.

"A graph can be simple or complex, and they both can be memorable," explains Oliva. "You can make something familiar either by keeping it simple or by having a little story around it. It's not really that you should choose to use one color or many, or to include additional ornaments or not. If you need to keep it simple because it's the style your boss likes or the style of your publication, you can still find a way to make it memorable."

At this stage, however, the team hesitates to issue any sweeping design guidelines for an obvious reason: memorability isn't the only thing that matters. Visualizations must also be accurate, easy to comprehend, aesthetically pleasing, and appropriate to the context.

"A memorable visualization is not necessarily a good visualization," Borkin cautions. "As a community we need to keep asking these types of questions: What makes a visualization engaging? What makes it comprehensible?"

As for the chart junk, she says diplomatically, "I think it's going to be an ongoing debate."

Altair Engineering announced that Beijing Aokai Fuhui Technology (AKFH), the former LSF main distributor has become the primary distributor for Altair's PBS Works software in China.

"We are enthusiastic that this strategic partnership will enable Altair to efficiently promote the development of the high-performance computing industry in China, said Herbert Qi, general manager, Altair Greater China. "Beijing Aokai Fuhui is a company that is highly respected in the market and has the qualifications we were looking for in a strategic partner as we accelerate our growth initiatives in China."

AKFH is one of the leading IT solution providers in China. Its business is focused on cloud computing, simulation and the high-performance computing (HPC) industry. AKFH, with Beijing as its headquarters, expands its high-efficient sales network and services network throughout the nation, including Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Luoyang, Nanchang, and other main cities in China.

"PBS Works is an excellent software solution for high-performance computing, with a highly-respected reputation in the industry," stated Jin Haicheng, general manager, Beijing Aokai Fuhui. "We're so proud that Altair chose us as the primary distributor of PBS Works in China. We hope to promote PBS Works to more enterprises as they look to build better HPC platforms."

PBS Works is a suite of on-demand cloud computing technologies that allows enterprises to maximize ROI on computing infrastructure assets. PBS Works is the most widely implemented software environment to optimize grid, cloud, cluster and on-demand computing worldwide. The suite's flagship product, PBS Professional, provides a flexible, on-demand computing environment that allows enterprises to easily share diverse (heterogeneous) computing resources across geographic boundaries.

J. Elisenda Grigsby, an assistant professor of mathematics at Boston College, has received a CAREER award, the National Science Foundation's most important prize for junior faculty, in support of her work in low-dimensional topology.

The award, which recognizes "innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology," will support a project whose broad aim is to improve understanding of the topology of 3- and 4-dimensional spaces, specifically the properties of these spaces that remain unchanged under stretching and contracting, but not under tearing and gluing.

Grigsby's research focuses on knot theory, the study of loops imbedded in 3-dimensional space. The mathematical objects she studies are relevant to fields ranging from information technology to DNA research.

"Topological ideas underpin the development of efficient computer chips, data structures, and information networks," she explained, "and basing quantum computing algorithms on large-scale features of a quantum system minimizes their susceptibility to random error.

"Moreover, the shapes of molecules and proteins determine their electrical properties and biological functions," she said.

The prestigious NSF award, which supports the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars "who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization," will provide $400,000 for the project over the next five years.

"The new ways to analyze structures such as knots, braids and tangles that Prof. Grigsby is pioneering have the potential to settle long-standing mathematical questions," said Mathematics Professor and department chair Solomon Friedberg. "They also have the potential to provide new tools for science—tools that could be applied to fundamental questions such as how DNA behaves in cells. I congratulate Prof. Grigsby on her CAREER award, and look forward to the contributions to topology and to BC that it will enable."

Grigsby, who teaches courses in linear algebra, advanced calculus and algebraic topology, holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Harvard University and a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley. Prior to joining the University in 2009, she was an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University and held a position at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

Her contributions have appeared in Advances in Mathematics, Geometry and Topology 12, and Algebraic and Geometric Topology, among other publications.

Whether people are building a flying machine or nature is evolving one, there is pressure to optimize efficiency. A new analysis by biologists, physicists, and engineers at Brown University reveals the subtle but important degree to which that pressure has literally shaped the flapping wings of bats.

The team's observations and calculations show that by flexing their wings inward to their bodies on the upstroke, bats use only 65 percent of the inertial energy they would expend if they kept their wings fully outstretched. Unlike insects, bats have heavy, muscular wings with hand-like bendable joints. The study suggests that they use their flexibility to compensate for that mass.

"Wing mass is important and it's normally not considered in flight," said Attila Bergou, who along with Daniel Riskin is co-lead author of the study that appears April 11 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. "Typically you analyze lift, drag, and you don't talk about the energy of moving the wings."

The findings not only help explain why bats and some birds tuck in their wings on the upstroke, but could also help inform human designers of small flapping vehicles. The team's research is funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Sponsored Research.

"If you have a vehicle that has heavy wings, it would become energetically beneficial to fold the wings on the upstroke," said Sharon Swartz, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown. She and Kenneth Breuer, professor of engineering, are senior authors on the paper.

The physics of flexed flapping

The team originally set out to study something different: how wing motions vary among bats along a wide continuum of sizes. They published those results in 2010 in the Journal of Experimental Biology, but as they analyzed the data further, they started to consider the intriguing pattern of the inward flex on the upstroke.

That curiosity gave them a new perspective on their 1,000 frames-per-second videos of 27 bats performing five trials each aloft in a flight corridor or wind tunnel. They tracked markers on the bats, who hailed from six species, and measured how frequently the wings flapped, how far up and down they flapped, and the distribution of mass within them as they moved. They measured the mass by cutting the wing of a bat that had died into 32 pieces and weighing them.

The team fed the data in to a calculus-rich model that allowed them to determine what the inertial energy costs of flapping were and what they would have been if the wings were kept outstretched.

Bergou, a physicisist, said he was surprised that the energy savings was so great, especially because the calculations also showed that the bats have to spend a lot of energy — 44 percent of the total inertial cost of flapping — to fold their wings inward and then back outward ahead of the downstroke.

"Retracting your wings has an inertial cost," Bergou said. "It is significant but it is outweighed by the savings on the up and down stroke."

The conventional wisdom has always been that bats drew their wings in on the upstroke to reduce drag in the air, and although the team did not measure that, they acknowledge that aerodynamics plays the bigger role in the overall energy budget of flying. But the newly measured inertial savings of drawing in the wings on the upstroke seems too significant to be an accident.

"It really is an open question whether natural selection is so intense on the design and movement patterns of bats that it reaches details of how bats fold their wings," Swartz said. "This certainly suggests that this is not a random movement pattern and that it is likely that there is an energetic benefit to animals doing this."

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