What is a Macroscope?

Earth by Cameron Becarrio

Between the years 2005 and 2014, the Places & Spaces: Mapping Science exhibit worked towards the goal of bringing maps of science to the general public. Along the way, the exhibit showcased many of the best examples of data visualization from leading figures in the natural, physical, and social sciences, scientometrics, visual arts, science policy, and the humanities. The result of this effort has been two-fold: first, it has allowed audiences to share in the wonder of scientific thought made visible; second, it has sparked a Cambrian explosion of mapmaking innovation, as individuals from around the world have been inspired to create maps that analyze and explain the issues most vital to them.

In the year 2015, however, Places & Spaces made moves in a direction that marked both a continuation of and a development upon its past achievements. While the exhibit's first decade was mainly devoted to static maps of science, the second decade's mission will be devoted to exploring the power and potential of macroscopes.

AcademyScope by Jeff Colosino, Alphonse MacDonald, Stephen Mautner, Barbara Kline Pope, JD Talasek, Juan Thomassie, Katy Börner, Chin Hua Kong, Samuel T. Mills, and Adam Simpson

The term "macroscope" may strike many as being strange or even daunting. But actually, the term becomes friendlier when placed within the context of more familiar "scopes." For instance, most of us have stared through a microscope. By doing so, we were able to see tiny plant or animal cells floating around before our very eyes. Similarly, many of us have peered out through a telescope into the night sky. There, we were able to see lunar craters, cloud belts on Jupiter, or the phases of Mercury. What both of these scopes have in common is that they allow the viewer to see objects that could otherwise not be perceived by the naked eye, either because they are too small or too distant.

But what if we want to better understand the complex systems or networks within which we operate and which have a profound, if often unperceived, impact on our lives? This is where macroscopes become such useful tools. They allow us to go beyond our focus on the single organism, the single social or natural phenomenon, or the single development in technology. Instead, macroscopes allow us to gather vast amounts of data about many kinds of organisms, environments, and technologies. And from that data, we can analyze and comprehend the way these elements co-exist, compete, or cooperate.

With the macroscope, we are allowed to see the "big picture," a goal imagined in 1979 by Joël de Rosnay in his groundbreaking book, The Macroscope: A New World Scientific System. For the author, the macroscope would be the “symbol of a new way of seeing and understanding." It was to be a tool "not used to make things larger or smaller but to observe what is at once too great, too slow, and too complex for our eyes."

With these needs and insights in mind, the second decade of the Places & Spaces exhibit will invite and showcase interactive visualizations—our own exemplars of de Rosnay’s macroscope—that demonstrate the impact of different data cleaning, analysis, and visualization algorithms. It is the exhibit's hope that this view of the "behind the scenes" process of data visualization will increase the ability of viewers to gain meaningful insights from such visualizations and empower people from all backgrounds to use data more effectively and endeavor to create maps that address their own needs and interests.

While the Phase I static maps often showed the results of scientific exploration, the macroscopes invite viewers to explore science themselves. In other words, if the science maps were thought made visible, the macroscopes are thought made active. Viewers themselves are invited to collaborate with the macroscope makers in sharing directly in discovery. Macroscopes provide an entry point for the scientist and layperson alike, allowing us to engage directly with large data sets in ways that empower discovery and direct our own lines of questioning. All around us, big data is creating new ways of viewing and understanding our world--and macroscopes allow us to better understand and manage its complexity.

Acknowledgements: This exhibit is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. IIS-0238261, CHE-0524661, IIS-0534909 and IIS-0715303, the James S. McDonnell Foundation; Thomson Reuters; the Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center, University Information Technology Services, and the School of Library and Information Science, all three at Indiana University. Some of the data used to generate the science maps is from the Web of Science by Thomson Reuters and Scopus by Elsevier. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.