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Conferees discuss the power of images in science

From an X-ray of a human heel to a replica of a Scientific American cover, the personal images on nametags at a novel MIT conference last month told a little about each wearer -- and the goal of the conference itself.

"Image and Meaning: Envisioning and Communicating Science and Technology" brought together over 400 people from fields as diverse as architecture and biology. Participants addressed how images can be used to communicate science more effectively within the science community and to the general public. "We hope this will be the beginning of a movement," said President Charles Vest in introducing the conference held June 13-16.

"Your nametags will give you a sense of what we anticipate from the conference -- an innovative way to facilitate our interaction to discuss, learn, inspire and collaborate with one another," wrote Felice Frankel, Boyce Rensberger and Richard Freierman in a letter accompanying "Image and Meaning" materials. When registering for the conference, each participant was asked to send an image representing his or her field.

Frankel, an MIT research scientist and science photographer, was organizer of the conference. Rensberger, director of MIT's Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program, was co-organizer, and Freierman was program manager.

The packed schedule included 13 panels on topics ranging from different imaging techniques to how the graphic arts can help or hinder communication. Short panel talks were followed by discussions moderated June 14 by Professor George Whitesides of Harvard and June 15 by Professor Emeritus Richard Gregory of the University of Bristol.


One panel featured speakers on space imaging, medical imaging and photography. Professor Richard Satava of Yale University, for example, declared that "imaging is the crux of what the future of medicine is all about." Because of powerful tools such as virtual reality, "it's no longer blood and guts, it's bits and bytes."

Frankel, the photography panelist, raised the issue of whether it's OK to enhance an image. "I say 'yes,' as long as I tell you I'm doing it," she said, adding, "if you're changing the intent of the image, you can't [enhance] it." As an example, she described digitally removing some cracks from a photo of a bacterial colony. "The idea of the image was to show the patterns [made by the bacteria]," she said. "Removing the cracks didn't change that mission; it aided it."


Participants also had time to learn from each other. Friday afternoon working groups, for example, "were an opportunity for people to discuss various issues," Frankel said. Should publications annually publish their "standards" for what a "real" image is? Are the makers of images responsible or accountable for the accuracy of those images?

The conference also included a hands-on "play area" in the Stratton Student Center featuring a variety of images. "The exhibition images themselves were meant to spark conversations among participants," said Frankel. "For example, through the exploration of an architectural drawing, a chemist could find visual elements that may be helpful in communicating a complicated scientific message."

Since the conference, Frankel has received scores of notes from participants. "The positive feedback has been extraordinary," she said. What's next? After "taking a deep breath," she will create a video, CD and teachers' guide on the conference with funds from the National Science Foundation.

Key sponsors for the "Image and Meaning" conference were Kodak, the NSF and the American Chemical Society.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 18, 2001.

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