February 12, 2009

Put A Little Science in Your Life

Print More

Okay, so it turns out I wear quite a few hats down at the Sun. Most people happen to know me for the column I write in the opinion section (sex, politics and Palestine… basically). The majority of my time actually working on the paper however is spent working for the design department. And then there’s a little project I started last semester that goes by the name of “The Science Section.”

The story goes like this: one day I was sitting in the gorge sunbathing with Arts Editor Julie Block ’09 and Design Editor Carol Zou ’09. And I turn to them, and say “you know, the Sun needs a science section.” Three weeks, two staff recruiting sessions, three draft proposals and a few all nighters later, well the Sun had a science section.

Starting a section from scratch is generally a stressful occurrence, and I’m not going to lie, a semester ago I had a full head of chestnut hair. Today it’s slightly more of a thinned out charcoal. Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating.

Naturally, one aspect of the section that has not been so stressful is the page design. As a section of feature stories (stories cover on-campus research, broad science/political issues and character pieces), the section naturally feels more “magaziny” than news or sports – design’s usual cup of tea. For a sense of logistics, the section spreads over two full pages once a week, lending itself well to large features and multiple stories under a single thematic umbrella.

“Magazine-y” is a word that gets tossed around a lot at 139 W. State Street. I won’t even attempt to claim a rigorous definition for this, but for me “magazine-y” means gratuitous patches of whitespace, centered headlines, large drawings and creative graphics and casual subheadlines that say things like “Zachary Bean Saves the planet, one compostable battery at a time…” (not a real headline!). Basically, stuff you’d expect to find in The New Yorker or equivalents.

Beyond the page design, Science has really summoned up my photoshop/Quark skills in a way news and sports rarely do. For a prime example, the Cornell particle accelerator graphic below is probably the single most ambitious graphic I’ve ever made:


Believe it or not, that entire image, sans words, was made in photoshop using basic shapes. Boxes, ovals, and brush strokes. Using the perspective tool (which basically turns a square into a trapezoid, and condenses everything in between) I made Alumni field go from an arial view to a nearly flat, 3-D plane. Using burning and dodging (the tools darken and lighten, respectively), a simple blue ring turns into a rounded accelerator torroid. Using blurry, feathering techniques, a hard yellow ball turns into a fuzzy quantum-mechanical electron cloud.

Grass and trees were made slightly more realistic by adding “noise” to the solid colors (the noise causes various pixels of the image to deviate from the mean value… it literally uses a “gaussian” or bell curve to do this!… Photoshop algorithms rely heavily on statistics and linear algebra!).

To make Alumni fields transparent, I merely altered the opacity of that layer of the image. In photoshop, you don’t work with a single map of pixels like you would in, say, MS Paint. Instead many sheets of 2-D images rest atop each other in what are called “layers”. Using this organization to your advantage allows incredible creative freedom.


Above is the web image of the Weill Hall biology building spread that ran last semester. Although on the website it appears as a closed-form image, in print the tiles spread throughout the section’s two pages, mimicking the building in which the research we described takes place. Anyone can put a photo of the new weill hall on the page. But only an OCD designer with too much free time would instead use Richard Meier’s trademark white tiles to organize the page between the feature story and scientist profiles.

The tiles were more than cosmetic. We have a half dozen researcher profiles to go along with the article. Sticking tiles between the stories themselves and said profiles eliminated the need for lines and boxes. One reason I find print design superior to web design is that a physical page with daily designers affords that kind of spur-of-the-moment creativity. Since a website is hard-coded, such an effect would involve literally re-writing the site. Web fail.

[img_assist|nid=34984|title=Hydro Cell|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

Finally, no science section is complete without its own take on the standard hydrogen fuel cell diagram. I challenge you to find a prettier version of this image! Certainly Wikipedia doesn’t hold a candle…


Science is best learned with visual aids. I think this graphic helps illustrate just how small a nanometer is, by showing how many iterations it takes, shrinking by a factor of 1,000 each time, to reach the nanoscale. Sadly, the way I accidentally made the lines go, it almost suggests we’re enlarging by factors of 1,000, not shrinking. This is what happens when I’m left to my own devices at 3 a.m.


Finally, a story that ran covering an advanced physics laboratory course was *screaming* for trademark science doodles. This is probably the ONLY time you’ll see me attempt to draw in the Sun. From top to bottom, the four largest doodles represent:

TOP: The Michelson-Morley experiment (not to be confused with former Managing Editor Michael Morrisey), which accidentally disproved the existence of ether – an invisible material scientists used to believe filled the universe. The provided evidence for Einstein’s special relativity.

TOP MIDDLE: The spikey diagram below the organic chemistry molecule is a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance diagram. Basically, if molecules were bells, they’d ring (electromagnetically, of course) with the frequencies on those graphs. Add some vector algebra, computer code and a few million dollars and you’ve got an MRI machine!

LOWER MIDDLE: This is the Rutherford experiment where Rutherford’s tired, underpaid research assistants shot alpha particles at thin metal foil (gold or platinum) and were shocked to see some of them ricochet backwards. This proved the existence of a small, dense nucleus in all atoms.

CAVENDISH EXPERIMENT: Spherical masses suspended from a twisting wire were
used by Cavendish to measure the universal gravitational constant,
critical in Newton’s equations of motion.

BOTTOM: The phase diagram for Helium-III, a rare isotope of Helium that remains a liquid as the temperature approaches absolute zero! It’s called “superfluid” in this form since it has zero viscosity. This means that if you were to slosh it in a glass, it would continue sloshing back and forth forever, never coming to rest. Also, if it were put in a bucket, it would completely climb up the sides and escape from said bucket. Crazy times…

Well folks, for more Science designs (and the stories themselves, of course!), I encourage you to pick up the Wednesday edition of the Daily Sun.