Science pictures can capture your attention and inspire curiosity

This first image shows the bright ring that forms as light bends around a blackhole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the sun. Event Horizon Telescope CollaborationCC BY

Was I able to understand what I saw? Not quite. I needed at least one explanation. First, I looked, and I’m sure many others did too. Then, I started asking questions.

Images like these of the universe are fascinating and mysterious. They spark curiosity. I’m convinced that the pictures scientists share, like the Black Hole and so many Hubble telescope images, are a big part of why people are interested in astronomy. These popular images make science more accessible and welcoming.

I believe that people are more willing to ask questions if they can see an image. Many people have taken photos and even know a “language” of photography. You can notice color and wonder whether it has a meaning, such as why the black hole is orange. You probably know how to pose questions about a picture.

As a scientist photographer, I have been trying for years to convince my colleagues that they could create more compelling images about their research. My new book, Picturing Science and Engineering, explains simple techniques that anyone can use to create an image that will engage the viewer.

Photographs and other visuals are no longer just for experts. It is vital that scientists learn how to communicate with non-experts if they are to fight the climate of mistrust.

The image may not be very appealing. Alice Nasto, CC BY-ND

Alice Nasto , a researcher at MIT, created an image of her work as a Mechanical Engineer. She created material that mimicked sea otter hair for insulation purposes. Compare the photo I took of the material with this one. If you can’t tell the difference between them, I am in serious trouble.

A new angle and different lighting will make the material more interesting. Felice Frankel, CC BY-ND

I hope that you will be more inclined to view the image I created from the same material. It was just a matter of folding it and lighting it differently. My process was not complicated. The dramatic lighting makes you want to look more. Folding the material also gives you additional information. It is flexible and has a “hairy surface”.

Science is everywhere. All you see is a result of scientific phenomena. Why not use a captivating image to start a discussion about scientific phenomena?

Have you ever noticed that condensation forms on the inside of the glass lid when sautéing colored peppers, for example?

Beautiful images can captivate the eye and then open up a conversation about the scientific principles that are at work within them. Felice Frankel, CC BY-ND

I took this photo with my mobile phone to take advantage of the ability that phones offer for capturing a fleeting moment. I snapped a quick picture. As I had predicted, the image vanished in a matter of seconds. On the glass, you can see the effect of this phenomenon on the optics.

Take a look at the next image.

Cellophane folds form water droplets. Felice Frankel, CC BY-ND

As I walked along a Boston street, I noticed that some trees were covered in cellophane. I don’t know why. It caught my eye when I saw that several water drops were forming a line on a couple creases.

Why that happens is a fascinating physics. The crease guides the water droplets. The water drops “self-assemble”, a phenomenon that is important in various nanotechnology fields. In nature, messenger RNA is used to guide the assembly of DNA in our cells. Researchers assemble drugs in laboratories by creating substrates which attract certain chemicals.

Many concepts and structures in science cannot be photographed. In these cases, I come up with a photographic metaphor to convey the idea. Here’s an example.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *