Visualizing Scientific Research

20 Mar 2012

A few months ago, Chris Wilmer, Omar Farha, and I created a five-minute visualization on the topic of metal-organic frameworks and their potential application to natural gas products. Since then, it’s been featured in Science, rated one of Wired’s top science videos, and has been on a number of blogs.

I won’t delve into the science here, but rather I’d like to share my thoughts on visualization and the role of aesthetics and presentation in complicated topics.

First, the video was created primarily with blender, an amazing open-source computer graphics program. It is built on Python and allows direct scripting access to its methods and attributes. This means you can automate the repetitive aspects of visualization (ie. getting four hundred molecules to jiggle) and focus more of your time on important stuff (ie. not staring at a computer).

More importantly, this video taught me the importance of simplicity and clear presentation. Many topics out there are completely drowning in jargon. I believe that terminology make fields appear complex, when the fact of the matter is that most things are, at their core, simple.

Let’s take the example of the utilization of grand canonical monte carlo thermodynamic simulations- the very approach used to decide upon optimal metal-organic-framework combinations. Strip away the lingo, avoid the crazy equations, and the underlying logic is as simple as playing plinko with molecules. Seriously.