Is your scientific work visible enough?

I can be quite smug about it, I think. Science is a tyrant, wielding intimidating texts and tables. But the two fields I love, – ecology and geology – source their knowledge from a reality you can easily reveal. If one’s task is opening up science, that’s a bonus.
The ground under our feet has been laid down over millions of years. That’s easy to explain. And ecology: who doesn’t sense that all plants and animals are connected? What could be more enjoyable than visiting the product of geology and ecology – the landscape? Yet I can’t help but worry about the preservation of special and fragile geology, ecology or heritage. For how is it that cyclists ride past it, schoolchildren find it boring and voters overlook it?

Apparently, it is not visible enough. The language and images used by professionals, once beyond the borders of academia, just can’t cut it.

What do you need, to grasp geology or ecology?

Nothing more than a few clues. A dash of knowledge. Preferably administered on the spot by a human guide.
“Do you see that the salt marsh is higher than the polder behind the dike?”
“Did you notice there are no godwits near trees?”
Yes, they do see that. Nice. Right now all you have to do is to come up with an explanation for that height difference or that bird behavior. And in terms that your audience understands. If only you could put a geologist next to every phenomenon.

To simplify, but not too much

The next best way to see an area is through a paper or digital guidebook, with photos, illustrations, maps and text. An atlas, an app, a travel guide. (Whether the thing is paper or digital doesn’t really matter, it seems to me. But something that you click away in an instant is a message you forget in an instant).
Either way, digital or analog, you want to unlock scientific knowledge in an easy, visual way. You want to simplify, but not too much. Reality is complex and readers may have little time, but they certainly don’t want to waste it on information or stories that don’t teach them anything.

This way, this “opening up science” of mine will still be quite a job. Good thing the reward is so great: once people see geology or ecology, they keep seeing it everywhere.
That’s riches.

Talking geology at a party

Fun anecdote: one of the professors who collaborated on the Canon of the Dutch Landscape gave me a great reason to do my job. He said “thanks for your work, now I can just explain what I do at a party”. This also indicates that the scientists themselves find a short version of their work very useful.

Atlas of the Netherlands in the Holocene, block diagrams of braiding, meandering and anastosomal river.

Block charts and maps can look very friendly. How simple can visualizing science be? When do you go from accessibility to “telling too little”?

Canon of the Dutch Landscape, a folding sheet of 16 faces, created with 20 professors and specialists, each of whom could write a book about it.

science visualization accessible

The content is tightly bound: each plane of the folding sheet has an introduction, a description of a phenomenon, and some location text of where that phenomenon occurs. The block diagrams visualise the phenomenon.


science visualization accessible

I still think this “leaflet” is a good example of how information can be transferred from pure text to photo, map, illustration and timeline.


There is a separate section for human additions to the landscape, on top of sand, clay and peat.

science visualization accessible

‘Het ontstaan van Zeeland’ (the origins of Zeeland) lets you browse from the past to the present, getting a good look at how Zeeland became dry land, washed over again and eventually slowly became diked.

science visualization accessible

Online you would do this with a slider, such as, but browsing by hand naturally gives you a fine object.


There is also such a thing as scientific posters, for use at conferences. For a few geomorphologists, I made a dozen, prioritizing the visual. After all, the landscape itself is visual.

science visualization accessible

It can also be a lot more abstract: the port of Rotterdam (tilted), from the “Climate as an Opportunity” project. The sea level is rising and the Netherlands must be designed accordingly. Blue shading = water storage.