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Games, Videos and Images Illustrate Science in New Exhibit

A few years ago, physicist Damian Pope was talking to a colleague at a party who mentioned that Einstein’s theory of relativity helps maintain the accuracy of GPS, something that took him by surprise. “I felt strongly that the link between relativity and the GPS was a powerful story and that most people didn’t know about it,” Pope said. “I wanted to help spread the word.”

Pope decided to develop a video explaining the relationship. His video, along with photography, illustrations, informational graphics, interactive games, and non-interactive media, are all part of a new exhibit in the AAAS Gallery.


GPS and Relativity | Image courtesy of Damian Pope, Greg Dick, Sean Bradley, Steve Kelley—Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics; Images © Science/AAAS

The exhibit builds on a collection of images assembled by the U.S. National Science Foundation and features winners of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, an annual competition sponsored by NSF and the journal Science. The competition recognizes individuals for making science more understandable for the general public.


The exhibit features 37 works by 82 artists and runs through the end of August. The AAAS Gallery is located at 12th and H Streets, N.W., in Washington, D.C. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

“The exhibit really captures both the beauty and excitement of science,” said Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science. “I hope we get a very large public attendance.”

Juli Staiano, AAAS development director and art committee member, said the inclusion of multimedia is one unique aspect of the exhibit. “There was a desire to highlight some of the multi-media winners, since that’s a major component of the competition and, of course, a key vehicle for communicating science,” Staiano said. “So we added the multi-media gallery to the mix to highlight a couple of the interactive winners and all of the winning videos since 2008.”



Genomics Digital Lab: Plant Cells | Image courtesy of Jeremy Friedberg and Tommy Sors; Spongelab Interactive

Genomics Digital Lab: Plant Cells, created by Spongelab Interactive and Purdue University, is one of the interactive games featured in the multimedia section of the exhibit. The game was initially inspired by a museum-style exhibit on plant biology and genomics built by a group from Purdue University led by David Salt and Thomas Sors, according to Jeremy Friedberg, founder of Spongelab Interactive. “We really wanted to create this meta-exhibit experience,” he said, so they designed three independent games to be embedded within the exhibit.


After the games won first place in the 2008 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge for interactive games, Spongelab received feedback from educators who were interested in sharing more games with their students, Friedberg said. In response to the demand, Spongelab worked to develop eight more games which became Genomics Digital Lab: Cell Biology, which won first place for interactive games in 2009.

Since then, Friedberg has been involved with the development of several science games, including Transcription Hero, where one can listen to music and transcribe genes with the guitar controller from Guitar Hero; the History of Biology Game, an online interactive science scavenger hunt; and the Spongelab Site, an open platform to freely share, use and create learning resources from researchers to teachers.

“A lot of how I got into this was just from my own teaching experience and wanting to have better tools to teach my students…. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing people getting excited about science,” Friedberg said. Science is “everywhere. It’s part of every aspect of our lives. Everyone should have an understanding and a passion for science.”


Human Immunodeficiency Virus 3D | Image courtesy of Ivan Konstantinov, Yury Stefanov, Aleksander Kovalevsky, Yegor Voronin—Visual Science Company

The non-multimedia pieces in the exhibit are no less impressive. An innocent-looking illustration by Ivan Konstantinov and his team from the Visual Science Company in Moscow initially appears to resemble a ball of grey and orange carpet, but it actually represents a 100-nanometer HIV particle. The model was assembled using data from more than 100 papers; Konstantinov said the level of detail and complexity of the model “made the whole process really challenging,” but seeing the final product was ultimately very rewarding.


In a video called “Trash Track,” a team of researchers at the SENSEable City Lab at MIT show where garbage goes after it has been tossed out. Using sensors stuck to pieces of trash that originated in Seattle, the team found that most of the trash remained in Washington state but several pieces traveled to Florida, Michigan, and even Mexico.

“Our objective with this project is to reveal the disposal process of our everyday objects, as well as highlight potential inefficiencies in today’s recycling and sanitation systems,” said Carlo Ratti, SENSEable City Lab director.

Dietmar Offenhuber, an artist with the SENSEable City Lab, was surprised to see how far some items traveled, including electronic and household wastes intended for recycling. “In some cases, [it’s] very likely that the benefit of recycling is neutralized by the environmental impact of its transportation,” he said.

“We were also surprised by the enthusiasm and support by the volunteers in Seattle, which showed us that Trash Track can be a model for a citizen-based monitoring and investigation of infrastructures that are usually hidden from view,” Offenhuber said.

“Trash Track presents a new opportunity for citizens to engage with the urban system,” added Assaf Biderman, SENSEable City Lab associate director. “Through the employment of pervasive technologies, this bottom-up process allows individuals to monitor and describe their environment, providing an insight into the impact of their own actions.”

Staiano’s favorite pieces include “What Lies Behind Our Nose?,” a photograph produced by stacking slices of CT scans which created an image looking up at the sinuses from under the head, as well as “Visualizing the Bible” which has colorful arcs representing references from a chapter in one book of the Bible to a chapter in another book. She’s also partial to “Cockroach Portrait,” a close up of a Cuban banana cockroach, for its placement near one of the entrances to the AAAS building.

“It’s like it’s trying to win a staring contest if you happen to glance at it as you walk through the turnstiles,” Staiano said.


Learn more about the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.