Last week my kids’ school went on a field trip to the University of Santa Cruz to observe a black hole multimedia exhibition. We were invited there by Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, the astrophysicist and the fellow parent at the school. When Enrico is not busy pushing the frontiers of science (he is partial to violent explosions), he teaches astrophysics to children age 4 to 12.
The exhibition combined the visualized data from recent Extreme Mass Ratio Inspiral (look it up) event, projected to the round screen on the floor, with the sound mapped to the acceleration of the star matter spiraling into the black hole, and an auxiliary animation of Einstein’s scribbles projected to the walls. It was an immersive experience.
The reality of being INSIDE of the installation, together with friends and the teacher, stimulated thinking and collaboration. Kids started asking questions, and there were no stopping of them. Enrico is awesome at understanding underlying questions children ask no matter how well or poorly they express the questions with their words.
There were certain abstractions in the visualization – it was rendered in a logarithmic scale, the perpendicular rays had to be “flatten” to the projection plane, the meaning of color was reversed to red for hot and blue for cold. Interestingly, these abstractions provoked more thinking and more discussions.
Enrico explained it is a balancing act to find a happy middle between scientific accuracy and intuitiveness of visualization.
Where the visual props come short, Enrico switches to explaining with his hands, he is as good at it as Richard Feynman was, creating a kind of single-actor science visualization theatre.
I was fascinated to hear from Enrico that, as a scientist, not only he uses imagery for explanations, but he also thinks in images.
I’ll use this as a good excuse to break into quoting my favorite parallel quotes.