Peter Atkins and the visualisation of Science

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Jessica Poole Mather reports from Peter Atkins’ visit to the Oxford Chemistry Society

After returning to the Inorganic Chemistry lecture hall after seven years, Peter Atkins commented that he still recognised the same Periodic Table hanging on the wall from. Many people have a visual memory, and also a visual mind, and Atkins argues that images are often much more powerful tools for understanding concepts than words or equations, and in science this is no exception. Yet drawing a picture doesn’t seem like a scientific approach, considering many of the most powerful models today are based on mathematical formulae.

Although in many ways the brain is much like a computer, the two differ widely when it comes to processing some forms of information. Computers are able to deal with billions of figures at any time, whereas it is said that the largest number a person can take in at a glance is four. So while computers may get by with stacks of formulae to carry out functions, we should go about understanding our brains in a different way.

One often hears that a mathematical mind is necessary to excel at the sciences, but while this is important, Atkins asserts that using images to accompany each stage of a mathematical proof is just as essential, otherwise it is difficult to truly understand science.

Atkins recognises the risks of using a visual teaching style in science. “There are dangers,” he warns, such as “imposing on people’s perception, rather than letting them build their own version.” The problem comes when an image association is made that does not fully explain the real situation; for example, the Bohr model of the atom consists of electrons orbiting the nucleus, like planets around the sun. Unfortunately, this fails to account for the wavelike nature of electrons, and the fact that they are actually described as a probability density. “The Bohr model of the atom is like Danish pornography,” he said, “once you have got the image in your head, it can be very difficult to remove”.

Despite the risks of teaching science with visual aids, Atkins insists that if used correctly, images have an important role to play. “The art of being an efficient scientist is to cut down what you know,” argues Atkins, suggesting that using a single and effective model for a number of related concepts is much better than using a separate model for each. After all, Atkins explains that “consistency of thought is the mark of an efficient scientist.”

Almost as captivating as his speech was the accompanying power point presentation, which contained perhaps a maximum of ten words, spread over more than sixty slides. Each slide was a bright, striking image, which acted to emphatically reinforce the message of his talk firmly in the minds of the audience.

“What I want to convey is the way I think”, Atkins had told us at the start of the talk, and he certainly conveyed a way of thinking which many scientists seem to defy. It is often said that a pictures tells a thousand words, but could images soon replace the many equations that are so prevalent in science today?