You know what everybody loves? The third dimension. And a group of scientists out of Australia, Russia, and Germany are looking to get the third dimension into scientific literature. As a general rule, when new studies are published, their data and figures are depicted in only two dimensions, like they would be in a standard paper journal. According to an article published this September through the Public Library of Science, these two dimensional images can’t fully communicate the depth of scientific findings. They tend to fall a bit flat, as it were.
These days, the majority of scholarly journals have an online component with the option to download whatever article may tickle your scholastic fancy in the form of a PDF. In 2005, Adobe released its Adobe Acrobat 7.0, which added the ability to embed a 3D image within a PDF, which would allow user interaction and manipulation in a way that had not yet been possible. This was originally intended for use with engineering documents, but the technology has widespread applications across a variety of disciplines. Unfortunately, Adobe Acrobat 3D (which survived up until Adobe’s 9th edition of the PDF reading software) was dropped when Acrobat X Pro was released, leaving engineers and scientists in the lurch, having to resort to external programs to embed 3D images in their papers.
The problem with this is standardizing the process. Not everyone uses the same imaging software, and so being able to access and interact with these images becomes a compatibility nightmare. That’s where our group of international researchers comes in. They developed a program, called S2PLOT, which provides a wide range of 3D modeling options for integration specifically into PDF files (and even provided a how-to for inserting them correctly and tweaking them). The beauty of their creation? It’s free. That’s right, no need to be concerned as to whether or not readers will be willing to purchase the necessary software to see your incredibly cool virtual model of an enzyme’s active site. If the program can become a standard, then we may just begin seeing highly interactive models cropping up all over the scientific world.
Now all of this does beg the question, why do we need 3D images in our scholarly articles? Is it just too sci-fi for a bunch of scientists to resist? Well the fact of the matter is that a lot of scientific data these days has more than two dimensions. Given how important visualization can be to fully understanding a new idea, the ability to fully depict data and to offer a dynamic means of interacting with it and examining it would greatly enhance a reader’s ability to fully appreciate novel findings. Descriptions of density, volume, fluid dynamics, chemical structure, and cellular mechanics could all be vividly rendered in three dimensions, offering, quite literally, new perspectives on how they all fit together and function.
There are, of course, a few problems with the new technology. At this point, the images can only be rendered in Adobe’s reader and can only be viewed on a desktop (no tablet support yet). But work like this does point in a new direction for scholarly publishing. It may not be long until you can sit on a subway or in a waiting room with a tablet or even a smartphone and twirl a newly described antigen-antibody interaction around on its axis and see in full form how the world fits together, invisible to the eye, but illuminated on a screen, and spinning at the tips of your fingers.