Sunday, June 09, 2013

A science book? Hardly

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, art, science

Give an artist an inch and he'll take an easel. In this case, an artist named Hancock was commissioned to illustrate a very short article (~300 words) titled "Where does Earth's water come from?" It appears he did read the article, but the very first fact is mis-stated (see upper left). The Earth is not 3/4 water; water cover's 3/4 of the planet's surface. By mass, water is less than 1/4,000 of Earth, and by volume, less than 1/1,000.

At least Mr. Hancock has read the item, which appears on page 42 of The Where, the Why and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, edited by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe. Many of the artists seem to have read no more than the article's title, and taken off from there, and neither the article's author nor the editors checked them for anything approaching factual accuracy.

All but a very few of the "illustrations" are impressionistic interpretations, and illustrate nothing. This makes the image above quite a bit better than most. Of course, the articles themselves are too short to do more than skate the surface of a subject and list a few semi-relevant items; none is longer than 400 words, about the size of the abstract for a scientific monograph. Of course, they make better reading than monographs!

In a few cases, the artist did a much better job, possibly because he or she actually knew some science. The title of the article on page 40 is "Are earthquakes predictable?" and this image by Isaac Tobin accompanies it on page 41. While also a bit impressionistic, it shows the principle of a fault, or fracture, in the rock layers underground. The locations of faults is the single most important factor in predicting earthquake locations, if not their timing.

Of course, the article dwells more on our failure to determine the timing of earthquakes, as it ought to. But an illustration showing the seismometers and other equipment used to attempt such predictions would make poor visual fare. So I like this image.

In one case, the artist seems to have done a better job than the scientist.  On page 70 we find, "What explains latitudinal patterns in species diversity?" The writer, Professor Joanna E. Lambert of UT San Antonio, presents a "maybe this, maybe that" approach that doesn't really answer the question.

This image neatly illustrates the question, and leads a viewer to the conclusion, "Well, DUH, life is harder near the poles!". Dr. Lambert did hit on this issue late in the article. Deserts and mountaintops at low latitudes have lower species diversity also, because life is harder there. The reduction of diversity with latitude is only part of a larger picture, that wherever life is better served by energy balance, plus sufficient water and nutrients, there will be richer diversity. Fewer plants and animals can make a living where these are in short supply. The illustration is by Lotta Nieminen, and is one of the best in the book.

There are two cases of total scientific blunder. In the article on page 28, "What happens to time as you approach the speed of light?", the premise is flawed. The question implies a fixed reference frame, and Einstein showed that there is no such thing. An object may be moving at some high velocity relative to our solar system, but from the viewpoint of someone in or on that object, it is the solar system that is moving fast. Because of the false premise, the author states that an observer in a fast-moving spaceship would see a clock on Earth "moving so fast that you would not be able to see the hands." Totally false. The Earth observer would indeed see the spaceship's clock moving more slowly, but the spaceship observer would see a clock on Earth moving equally slowly! That is the prediction of Special Relativity. It is called the time dilation paradox, and Special Relativity cannot resolve it.

So why did a clock put on a satellite that circled the Earth really fast come back showing less time had elapsed, than on Earth? General Relativity provides the answer. Acceleration and Gravity, which are equivalent in their effect on time, perform their magic on the clocks. In addition, Lorentz contraction makes the "traveler" experience a shorter trip. Thus, to the spaceship observer, a trip of a light year is shortened to something much less, while the ship clock seems to run at normal speed. In a sense, you could say that the contraction of space and the dilation of time balance out, while the acceleration required to get the spaceship "out there" and back, makes the system unbalanced, so that the clock that speeds up, turns around and slows again upon return is the one found to be slowed during its trip. Now my digression is longer than the article that triggered it! And I have given only a portion of the answer.

However, I must go on to another blunder. The illustration on page 31, for the article "How are stars born, and how do they die?" is a howler. It shows a nursery full of bassinets containing glowing clouds. They are labeled, "baby main sequence star", "baby supergiant star"—so far so good—, and then "baby red giant star", "baby neutron star", "baby red dwarf star" and "baby white dwarf star". Yeegads! A red giant is an aging star, while a white dwarf and a neutron star are two kinds of very elderly star. You can't have a "baby neutron star"!!! Also, a red dwarf is just one kind of main sequence star. The article's author, or at least the editors, really ought to have caught this. A better illustration would have shown a couple of bassinets, but shown the other kinds of stars with canes and hearing aids, or in rocking chairs. At least there was no "baby supernova". OMG: I just looked again…there is a "baby black hole"! That may have been possible a few microseconds after the Big Bang, but not any time since. A black hole is one kind of dead star, or if you will, a zombie star that can eat other stars. Hmm, put that into your illustration. P.S. The artist is one of the book's editors.

Efforts to bring together the arts and the sciences are commendable. Illustrators of scientific books and articles have always known that art can often illuminate science (and so have the scientists who hire them!), which is why they stay in business. A good illustration can show you something no photo can properly capture. However, while an illustrator is an artist, not all artists can be illustrators, as this book amply demonstrates.

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