Elegant Figures

Art, Aesthetics, Design, And Data at the 2012 Fall AGU

November 29th, 2012 by Robert Simmon

I’ll be speaking at the upcoming Fall AGU in San Francsico Tuesday morning—8:15 a.m. December 4, room 104 Moscone South. PA21B. Communication of Science Through Art: A Raison d’Etre for Interdisciplinary Collaboration I. (I know, it’s early, but Blue Bottle coffee is close to Moscone Center.)

Art, Aesthetics, Design, And Data: Reaching The Public Through Scientific Visualization

The primary challenge in science communication is attracting a broad audience while maintaining technical accuracy. Scientific topics are often and reflexively considered boring, dry, or difficult by non-scientists. One way to overcome this hurdle and gain the public’s attention is through beautiful and striking imagery. Imaging techniques borrowed from art and design can generate interest in technical or abstract concepts.

NASA’s Earth Observatory routinely uses imagery to communicate current Earth science research. Earth Observatory designers collaborate with NASA scientists to produce imagery using the principles of data visualization. Curiously, the popularity of images tends to be inversely correlated with the scientific content. Simple photographs and illustrations tend to be viewed more often, and more widely shared, than maps and graphs. However, maps of tree density and melt on the Greenland ice sheet are among the most popular images published on the Earth Observatory. These graphics share some features both with each other and our most-viewed natural-color images: clear, relatable themes, intuitive color palettes, and a clean aesthetic. These similarities may explain their success, and provide a roadmap for future data-rich visualizations that engage viewers while communicating complex science.

Please stop by. In addition, I’ve spent the past few weeks putting together imagery for a NASA/NOAA press conference Wednesday morning about a new, very cool sensor on the Suomi NPP satellite, and I’ll be on-hand to answer questions afterwards.

Earth at Night
Wednesday, 5 December
10:30 a.m.

A new cloud-free view of the entire Earth at Night, courtesy of a joint NASA-NOAA satellite
program called Suomi NPP, will be unveiled at the press conference. This image is an order of
magnitude more detailed than the wildly popular earlier Earth at Night image, and reveals new
information scientists are using to study meteorology, natural and human-caused fires, fishing
boats, human settlement, urbanization and more. Scientists will discuss the advancements now
possible with these new images and detail a few examples of the features mentioned above – plus
present images of Earth on moonless nights, lit only by “airglow” and starlight, as well as the
vast difference moonlight makes on the Earth’s surface.

James Gleason, NASA Suomi NPP project scientist, NASA Goddard, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA;
Christopher Elvidge, lead of the Earth Observation Group, NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, USA;
Steve Miller, senior research scientist and deputy director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere (CIRA), Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Sessions: A54F, IN33C

If you’re interested I’ll be sending out some of my impressions of the meeting via Twitter: @rsimmon hashtag #AGU12
I’d also love to meet any Earth Observatory readers who are attending—I’ll try to hang around after each of these sessions, or you can send a message through the Earth Observatory contact form:

Be sure to pick the “Design Feedback” topic (otherwise it won’t go to me, but to our harried developer), and leave your email address.

2 Responses to “Art, Aesthetics, Design, And Data at the 2012 Fall AGU”

  1. David Bayne says:


    I can’t wait to see the changes in the night image as I want to correlate these lights to the movement of shipping containers.

    I have a theory that the goods shipped in containers correlates with the power consumption. If this ho;ds for seaports then it may hold for inland transport as well. It will be the first time that we can get a handle on end consumption by region



    Port economist

  2. Peter D. Tillman says:

    Enjoyed the “Earth at Night” photo collection. Very nice. Thanks for working on this!