Cover Stories: Getting a New Perspective

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Science  24 Aug 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6097, pp. 877
DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6097.877

Cover stories offer a look at the story behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

Yan Liang

“Look closely.” That's the message underlying the cover of this week's issue. This wispy sea of green is a close-up of the periciliary layer, a component of the lining of the human airway between the lungs and nose. This visualization accompanies a study that explains how arrays of cilia and brush-like bio-macromolecules (shown here as yellow tubes and green hairs, respectively) transport mucus from the lungs—a new way of looking at how the respiratory system is protected from obstructions and infectious agents.

The cover image is the work of Yan Liang, a materials scientist turned freelance artist based in Shenyang, China. With microscopic images and a video of beating cilia as his guides, Liang illustrated this complex cellular function digitally, using three-dimensional modeling software. A subscriber to the “less is more” school of thought, his top priority in creating visualizations is scientific accuracy, a choice he demonstrates with simple shapes that get right to the point. As Liang puts it: “You can do it in two ways, right? You can do it the fancy way, or you can try to do it as scientific as possible. So I chose the latter.”

Like so many hobbies that consume, Liang's career as a visual artist began with tinkering. Computer graphics were always an interest of his, and even while obtaining two degrees in chemistry and a Ph.D. in materials science, he snatched up all the graphics software he could get his hands on. After many years at the lab bench, he made the switch to art, he says, not for a change of scenery but to do more of what he already enjoyed while staying connected to science: “when you create the cover or create something for a scientist, you feel that you're part of the research.”

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Liang has always harbored an affinity for the miniscule and microscopic. Although he began as a physical scientist, his art has sent him in new directions, including into the biological world. He delights in the opportunity to get up close and personal with the things we take for granted, as exemplified by an animation called “From Milk to Yogurt,”a collaboration he undertook with cookbook author Harold McGee. “I think that this is a good example of something that is very ordinary, something we see almost every day,” he says. And when you look closely at it, “something amazing is happening there.”

Research is the driver of what we do at Science, but dynamic and eye-catching visualizations help communicate complex scientific ideas to a greater audience than the research alone. If we can get specialists and non-specialists of all backgrounds to stop and appreciate an idea or new perspective on something, even something as familiar as the human airway, then we've achieved our objective.

—Yael Fitzpatrick, Art Director, Science

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