Explaining Nature Without Words

Visualizations in Physics and Science from Ancient Times to Virtual Reality

An overview

  • Some generalizations about people and the world that I have little supporting evidence for, but seem legit.
  • A brief history of science visualization
  • Science sims at CCNY
  • The future


Nature is messy.



Why? So we can predict the future.



Mode of Communication



The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.

- Galileo

Visual Communications

What we learn merely through the ear makes less impression upon our minds than what is presented to the trustworthy eye.

- Horace, ca. 20 BC

Eidos in Greek became idea

Imagination -> image

Visual Thinking

  • Einstein: what would it look like if I ran next to a light wave?
  • Faraday: Electric Fields permeate space.
  • Newton's Principia: Geometric Figures, not $F = ma$.
  • Examples from Ancient Times

    A Babylonian Tablet

    c. 1900-1700 BC

    Other Geometrical Figures

    Nicole Oresme


    Representation of Nature, for explanation

    Bivariate Plot

    In 1686, E. Halley plotted barometric pressure vs. altitude. A theoretical curve based on observations.


    Abstract Graphical Representations

    That by means of centripetal forces the planets may be retained in certain orbits, we may easily understand, if we consider the motions of projectiles; for a stone that is projected is by the pressure of its own weight forced out of the rectilinear path, which by the initial projection alone it should have pursued, and made to describe a curved line in the air; and through that crooked way is at last brought down to the ground; and the greater the velocity is with which it is projected, the farther it goes before it falls to the earth. We may therefore suppose the velocity to be so increased, that it would describe an arc of 1, 2, 5, 10, 100, 1000 miles before it arrived at the earth, till at last, exceeding the limits of the earth, it should pass into space without touching it.
    -Newton, System of the World

    J. C. Maxwell's Thermodynamic Surface, 1874

    Visualizations of Experimental Data

    Star Map

    Dunhuang Star Chart, ~ 700 AD



    Sometimes we are deceived

    Nicolaas Hartsoeker (26 March 1656, Gouda – 10 December 1725, Utrecht) Dutch Mathematician and Physicist.


    Iron Atoms on Copper surface (1993)


    E. Halley (again) First Weather Map. 1686


    Visuals for Learning

    The Periodic Table

    Lewis Structures



    Sims for Basic (and advanced) Physics

    What's a sim?

    A sim uses animations or other visuals to represent physical phenomenon or concepts.

    The Technology

    There are many, many sims out there. (Why do we need any more?)

    Early Days


           function setup () {
             \\inside this part goes things we need it to do once
           function draw() {
             \\inside this part goes things we need it to do over and over

    Anyone can make these!

    Example: Basic Kinematics

    Let's make a bouncy ball

    How Motion is Coded

    How Acceleration is Coded

    Something's not quite right

    We plot the position of the ball as a function of time.

    Compare two versions

    tposition (good)position (bad)

    What is acceleration?

    Acceleration implies a change in velocity.

    Def. of velocity: $$v = \frac{dx}{dt}$$ or $$x = \int v \;dt = \textrm{area under v(t) curve}$$


    x += v;
    v += a;


    x += averageVelocity;
    v += a;

    Acceleration that works!

    Happy Bouncer


    We're building a library of useful science objects.

    • Motion objects
    • Forces
    • Springs
    • Graphs
    • Optics
    • Fields

    The goal

    1. Build sims for learning

    2. Learn physics by building sims.

    “If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”

    - Many people

    Virtual Reality

    What cool?

    3d immersive space.

    Phones can run these.

    What's not cool?

    1. Coding is a wee bit harder
    2. Hardware is still a wee bit expensive.
    3. Too many wires.

    The future??


    Available upon request.