Last Saturday, the Spousal Unit and I spent the afternoon at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The museum was generally excellent. The dinosaur collection is world-famous, with type specimens for Tyrannosaurus rex and Diplodicus carnegii. The explanatory materials were copious, informative, and well-written, including honest descriptions of false steps and ongoing controversies. I think it’s important to show the public that science is not inerrant, but is self-correcting in the long run, and honest disputes are part of the process.
I was, however, disappointed by one of the temporary exhibits, mostly because it turned out to be not at all what I was expecting. The exhibit description read:
Gigapixel Imaging for Science
Through July 24, 2011
R.P. Simmons Family Gallery, Third Floor
Eight stunning high-resolution photos—some up to 17 feet in length—provide incredible detail of subjects such as a bait ball in the Galapagos Islands and one of the world's largest colonies of penguins. The photos were selected by a jury as part of the Fine International Conference on Imagery for Science, exploring high-resolution imaging technologies in science.
The small exhibit consisted of large-format photographs illustrating the work performed by scientists. Think of the lovely photographs that might accompany a National Geographic article: “Here’s a vast panorama with thousands of penguins!” “Here’s a site where we’re conducting a geological dig!”
There was little evidence that the photographs were useful for science. A hummingbird garden was a composite showing the same bird multiple times, and the accompanying material even explained that the scenario depicted would not occur in real life, due to the birds’ territoriality. The caption for a beehive photograph states, “While taking Gigapan image’s [sic] of the honey bee frames at the Red Hill Apiary did not directly assist with our documenting of colony decline, it did provide a unique and interactive tool by which bee biology and brood disease identification could be delivered.”
What I was expecting, and what I believe would be a more valuable exhibit, was a collection of cutting-edge imagery as data. There are all sorts of possibilities, some of which are little known to the general public, for example:
- Astronomical imagery, such as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field
- CT or MRI scans providing a complete 3D image of the human body
- Airborne hyperspectral imagery that can distinguish different types of foliage or minerals
- Satellite-based interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) imagery that can show how the earth’s crust has moved due to an earthquake
- The use of freely available Google Earth data to find new archaeological sites, or discover the magnetobovine alignment effect.
A good exhibit on imaging science and remote sensing could bring together numerous scientific disciplines into a coherent, stimulating outreach program.