Seeing Science

Visions, visualizations, and envisioning the future.

What does the Higgs boson look like? If you followed any of the news of the boson’s announcement in 2013, you probably saw a lot of brightly colored curlicues exploding against a black background. But as Chihwei Yeh notes in this issue of Method Quarterly — on “Visions” — there is actually no boson in these images. The Higgs boson is a perturbation in an energy field, visible to particle physicists only through the statistical ripples it leaves behind.

For the particle physicist, to see is to create. The miles of accelerator tunnels at CERN create subatomic perturbations to make them detectable; CERN’s graphic artists then create the images that begin to make these perturbations graspable in the imaginations of people outside of the lab.

Even at a much more familiar scale, scientific vision requires more than just seeing. From ecologists observing natural systems, to astrophysicists scanning the skies, to molecular biologists peering into the eye of a microscope searching for the neon green glint of a fluorescent tagged protein, the work of seeing requires technology, methods, and a vision of what to look for.

Perhaps because of this, scientists are also — often with too little or too much doubt cast — ordained with a sort of visionary foresight. How do scientists consider the future — in their assumptions, forecasts, and hallucinations? Whose visions guide these predictions, and whose don’t? And how do they decide what to look for?

In this issue of Method, we look at the ways in which scientists try to observe the world, and how disputes and changes over the ways we choose to see things can in turn alter how we envision the future. We have the astronomers at the Vatican observatory, who — free from the confines of the grant system — are asking some of the farthest reaching scientific questions about what exists in space. We trace the changing tools x-ray crystallographers used to model the twists, curls, and folds of proteins — and how that in turn transformed the way they viewed these microscopic structures. We examine what a new vision for South African science must do to see the human impacts of disease, beyond just its biochemistry.  And we ask what the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery says about the myth of the lone scientific visionary. And much more.


Christina Agapakis and Azeen Ghorayshi