Visualization Challenge 2010

Noninteractive Media

Science  18 Feb 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6019, pp. 854-856
DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6019.854

1st Place


SENSEable City Lab Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Many people know about the supply chain. They care about whether their fruit is organic, whether their chickens are free-range, whether the products they buy are domestically manufactured or imported. But the other end of the consumer chain—where all the used products go after they're dumped in the trash—is murkier.

Dietmar Offenhuber and his colleagues at the SENSEable City Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge wanted to bring that side of consumerism to light. So they stuck location sensors onto 3000 pieces of trash to see where the garbage ended up months later. They recruited households in Seattle and gave them wish lists of items they wanted to track: cell phones, fluorescent light bulbs, and other “household hazardous waste” that's difficult to regulate. The sensors were shielded by an insulating foam to protect them from being crushed.

Over the next 2 months, they kept tabs on their garbage and plotted its journey on a U.S. map. While most of it remained in Washington state, after a week some had seeped into Oregon and Idaho. In 2 weeks, some of the cell phones had gone as far as Florida. The end of the 2 months found fluorescent light bulbs in the Midwest, batteries in Michigan, and printer cartridges in Mexico.

“It's one of those knowledge is power things,” says panel of judges member Tom Wagner. “Hey, guess what, if you have complex packaging, this is what's going to happen to it when it goes in our refuse system.”

Honorable Mention (4-way tie)

GPS and Relativity

Damian Pope ▪ Greg Dick ▪ Sean Bradley ▪ Steve Kelly Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Damian Pope made this video for any non-scientists who think relativity matters only to theoretical physicists and Star Trek fans who want to know how many laws of physics the series has broken. Millions of people use relativity every day—in their GPS receivers.

GPS satellites orbit at an altitude of 20,000 kilometers. The problem: Time moves 38 microseconds a day faster at that altitude than on Earth's surface. That may not seem like much, but after a month, it could throw the GPS system off by more than 300 kilometers. The solution: Slow down the satellite clocks so they tick 38 microseconds less every day. Just one more reason to thank Einstein.


Amit Chourasia ▪ Emmett Mcquinn ▪ Bernard Minster ▪ Jurgen Schulze San Diego Supercomputer Center, UCSD

For earthquake scientists, predicting when the next “big one” will strike is the million-dollar question. But predicting how much damage it will do is just as important—and almost as uncertain. Knowing exactly how seismic waves transform the landscape could offer clues.

Seismologists have made numerous attempts to model seismic waves passing through Earth. But depicting their direction is difficult. Arrows or cones are ambiguous because viewed from the very front or the very back, they have the same shape: a circle. Amit Chourasia and his team at the University of California, San Diego, devised a straightforward solution: Use simple glyph shapes, such as spheres or ellipsoids, with a white dot on the end moving toward the observer and a black dot on the end moving away. By varying size and color to show magnitude, the method can display any kind of motion intuitively, from a major earthquake on the San Andreas fault to magnetic turbulence in stars millions of light-years from Earth.

“How's [an earthquake] going to affect people 30 miles away?” asks panel of judges member Tom Wagner. The new model offers an answer. “There has not been a way to do that before that was nearly as sophisticated.”

Computer Simulation of a Binary Quasar

Thomas J. Cox Carnegie Institution for Science

Galaxy mergers rank among the most violent and spectacular events in the cosmos. In a dance that can last billions of years, spiral arms of stars are thrown out into sweeping tails, and clouds of dust and gas are shoved into the center where, according to the prevailing theory, a supermassive black hole waits to consume them. Most astronomers think that all the gas pouring in will excite the black holes into quasars, the brightest objects in the universe, and that many merging galaxies will evolve into “binary quasars,” two quasars circling each other until their host galaxies unite.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey observed a binary quasar, SDSS J1254+0846, 4.6 billion light-years away. In 2009, deep imaging at the Carnegie Observatories' Magellan Telescope confirmed that this binary quasar was indeed a pair of interacting spiral galaxies 70,000 light-years apart, one of the first clear sightings of a binary quasar being triggered by a galaxy interaction. Thomas Cox modeled the galactic pas de deux over 3.6 billion years; the two partners arrived at a stage similar to that of the SDSS J1254+0846 image after 2.33 billion years.

There was no narration and no audio except for background music. But that simplicity made it easy to follow, according to panel of judges member Corinne Sandone: “It was very visual. … You don't need much narration to understand what you're viewing.”

Visualization of the Whole Brain Catalog

Drew Berry ▪ Mark Ellisman ▪ François Tétaz The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Animator Drew Berry and his neurobiologist colleagues take you on a journey deep inside the mouse brain. The video brings to life data from the Whole Brain Catalog, a massive database of microscopy and other data sets on the mouse brain, under development at the University of California, San Diego. It opens with a mouse sniffing a camera—a fitting image, says Berry, because the part of the brain that stores memory also controls the sense of smell. The video then zooms in on the mouse brain, focusing on the hippocampus, the headquarters of scent and memory. From there it isolates the dentate gyrus (upper right), the region that recognizes smells and creates new memories. Individual brain cells then start to appear. Finally, a new connection forms between two neurons, representing the creation of a new memory.

“For a memory, you'd have many, many neurons forming, or connections being broken and new patterns being made,” says Berry. Even so, he hopes this video will inspire a sense of wonder at how the brain works.

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