Adler Planetarium

Visualization and the Senses


The area of visualization is pretty active right now, with many opportunities to rethink how we humans relate to the Universe we live in, and how the data our civilization is gathering informs our growth as a species.

As Lakoff and Johnson, and a wide variety of scholars in the areas of biology and human cognition have stated, the actual spatial experience of the world we assume with our senses informs not only actions but abstractions of those actions, such as gestures and even language. In other words, when we move through space and handle things, that informs our understanding of the reality from which we come up with new ideas.

Space itself has even affected how we humans encode emotions. If I am happy, I am “up,” if sad, “down.” In general, the past is “behind” and future is “ahead” (although that is not so for all cultures). Even the physics of space reflects on the expression of emotions, so I can feel “attracted” to certain kinds of music for example. Space is not just sensed visually as these physical experiences just mentioned show. 

Of all people, astronomers can be considered to be the humans with the most far reaching senses. They have extended their vision, for example, as far as it is possible today, through technological means. Yet even unaided human vision can see objects that are light years away.

But what about the other unaided senses? What about hearing? We cannot hear beyond our atmosphere because it is the air in our planet that helps transmit sound (no problem for a spacesuit with a radio, though). Scents need to be much closer for us to smell, touch is only at arms’ reach and we can only taste what is in our mouth already. Secondary senses like the memory of space, knowing where things are in relation to the body, and temperature, also have close ranges.

Apparently senses are not created equal in the ranges they cover. This shows us that perhaps they can tell us something about space also. They at least inform our vocabulary and can probably help us create interactive visualizations that “make sense” to the way we organize our experiences.

The ranges occupied by our natural senses also reveal that perhaps we have a more symbiotic relation to our home planet than first suspected.

In the field of astronomy, not only vision has been extended through powerful telescopes that can detect as far as time allows, but other kinds of sensors have brought back data that is not available to what we can experience naturally. 

In many cases, placing that data in visualizations of different kinds show aspects of the Universe that would otherwise be invisible or unable to reach our senses simultaneously. Scales need to be adjusted and time is sped up to show change. Thus, I like to think of visualizations as experiences tailored to our senses. 

Curious about visualization and interaction at Adler? Visit the Space Visualization Laboratory during Open Lab hours, Monday through Friday from noon to 1 pm or during any other programming we host there.

Written by Julieta Aguilera, associate director of the Space Visualization Laboratory at the Adler Planetarium and Ph.D. candidate at the Planetary Collegium, University of Plymouth, UK. You can follow her down to Earth and cosmic musings about space on Twitter.


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