Candidates and Constituents Visualize Science in 2008

Public Domain

The 2008 electoral campaign has now brought us three debates. After 270 minutes of argument, the word "science" or "scientists" has been used approximately four times.

That would be three times in the first presidential debate*** (transcript), zero times in the vice-presidential standoff, despite the candidates being asked point-blank their views on climate change and its causes (transcript), and approximately once in the second debate.****

Perhaps we've reached the point where science is so ingrained in our culture that we don't need to say its name. All four candidates spent plenty of time on economics and energy independence - two areas in which science and its city cousin, technology, are the bedrock of the discussion.

But then, if we don't ever talk about science, how do we maintain or regain our country's focus on scientific literacy, and train new experts in science's ever-shifting frontiers? The words "education," "teachers," and "students" have been almost as rare in debate transcripts as science.

At least we can thank the National Science Foundation and Science magazine for encouraging people to think of new ways to imagine it. Their six-year-old Visualization Challenge rewards scientists and science outreach for finding compelling images and videos to get people to pay attention to research. The 2008 winners were announced at the end of September.

Above, the winner in photography is an electron micrograph of katydid-colored diatoms clinging to a hair-sized invertebrate in the Mediterranean Sea. Diatoms like these may produce as much as 40 percent of the world's oxygen.

Points for whimsy go to a beetle's tea party depicted in "Alice's Adventures in Microscopic Wonderland," the winner in Informational Graphics. Other memorable images show word linkages in the Bible and Op-art results of an experiment in polymer science.

I particularly loved the attempt by some German computer scientists to describe the shortcomings of current virus protection software and propose a next-generation solution. The team won an honorable mention in Non-Interactive Media for their cartoon short "Smarter than the Worm." It's charming to watch and so simply explained that you're almost fooled into thinking you knew this material already. But you probably didn't.

Here's the vaguely Where the Wild Things Are-ish YouTube video, in English, for Smarter than the Worm. Watch it... then consider telling your politicians you're ready for a renewed emphasis on science research and education.

Previous years' Visualization Challenge winners are here.

(Image: NSF/Mario de Stefano/Second University of Naples)

***For the record, all three times by Barack Obama.

****This was when Obama noted that scientists were present at the start of the computing industry and implied we would need them again as we reshape the energy industry.