How Scientific Diagrams Evolve

Sometimes when I was doing my literature review for my thesis I would crawl down a rabbit hole, searching for the original source. Most often, this involved trying to chase down a particular statistic, hunting through review paper through the wrong primary research articles, and then ending up at one of three finish lines:

1)   I find the actual source with the statistic in a peer-reviewed journal article, which had been properly cited.

2)   I find the actual source with the statistic in a non-peer-reviewed article, book, or website post. It is interesting that people don’t cite the original source, possibly because citing a peer-reviewed article looks better (for those that aren’t looking very hard). Which leads to the final possible outcome:

3)   I find a total dead end, where the thing that was being cited simply didn’t exist. Someone makes up a figure, cites some author, and it gets published. Benefit of the doubt, some of these are very honest mistakes. Still, #fail.

I followed the evolution of a particular diagram back in time. Here are three scientific diagrams about the same thing  (a schematic representing the destruction of plant cell walls through pretreatment), published in three papers, in chronological order (ranging from 1980 to 2011):

plant cell wall pretreatment plant cell wall pretreatment plant cell wall pretreatment

I see an odd sort of beauty in how much the image improves. Like science itself, this image is adapted and sharpened as our understanding of it improves with time. People stand on the shoulders of giants, to draw ever-better diagrams of… plant pre-treatments.

Then this happens:

plant cell wall pretreatment

Credits: me, me, me?

Sure, it is a bit more of a change, and it wasn’t published in a scientific journal (actually, a University of Florida extension article). But it is interesting that although the author cited some of the papers that included the above diagrams, Tong decided to take all of the credit for the image. Is it plagiarism? Technically, yes.

What about the two examples below? They are even more different than the previous one was to the originals, and they don’t cite any previous sources.

plant cell wall pretreatment plant cell wall pretreatment

To me, watching how these images evolve over time stresses the importance of properly citing the original source. Firstly, it isn’t plagiarism, and secondly, by citing a good image, you’re less likely to end up with a poorly-drawn sad-face in your scientific article.

If nothing more, I see these sorts of diagrams as an interesting way to visualize the evolution of memes (as Richard Dawkins originally intended the word, not as the evolved meaning that the word has developed). Were these really distinctly evolved occurrences (like how bats and birds separately evolved the ability of flight), or are they just cheating mimics (like how some harmless snakes have evolved to look surprisingly like deadly venomous ones) ?

Hard Science Fiction = Easy Science Communication

Four years ago I was reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov in my bedroom. There was nothing new about the fact that I was reading science fiction, but I can still recall this very moment in time – the first time I read something by Asimov. The more I read, the more I noticed subtle uniqueness’s about Asimov’s approach to sci-fi. At some point while reading half of the book in a single sitting, I realized what Asimov’s secret weapon was: he was using science fiction as a covert tool of science communication. I remember this so vividly because it was what first made me want to start writing my own sci-fi.

Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill
Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

Asimov was a biochemist who wrote an incredibly high volume (his bibliography has over 500 entries) of fantastic books. He is perhaps most known for I, Robot (bearing only a little resemblance to the movie staring Will Smith) – and his Foundation series.

Sci-fi can be used to get people excited about the possibilities of the future, that much I had known. This was more than that. Asimov was sneaking many bits of real science into his writing. His characters were detectives, and they went about solving mysteries in a very scientific manner. He took then-leading-edge scientific knowledge about atomic power and newly discovered chemicals and put them into action (I, Robot was published in 1950, so the science isn’t as accurate as it originally was). His books were Trojan horses, allowing science to invade the reader’s mind under the façade of story telling.

There really aren’t enough novels within this stream of science fiction, often called ‘hard science fiction’. There are some, like the astronomer Carl Sagan’s Contact, and computer scientist Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, but there is certainly room for more.

There so many are others that get the science right, like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (which I did enjoy), but hold an “anti-science” perspective. Where are all of the rest of the sci-fi stories that celebrate science with optimism?

If you know of any modern hard science fiction that are “pro-science” (especially anything that packs in some humor), please leave it in the comments!