Tufte seminar

Subject: Tufte seminar
From: Jay Cherniak <CHERNJC1_at_TEAPOST -at- TEOMAIL -dot- JHUAPL -dot- EDU>
Date: Fri, 27 Jan 1995 08:33:57 EST

I took the Tufte seminar in Sunnyvale, Calif., last year. It was so unusual
and stimulating that I thought I would share my experience.
Tufte, a professor at Yale, is an entertaining and riveting speaker. As
someone has written, his overriding interest is to celebrate masterpieces of
complex-data presentation. He spent an hour or so showing us two antique books,
walking around the room with them to give everyone a close look. The books were
the first English edition of Euclid's geometry, published early in the
seventeenth century, and the first edition of Galileo's book in which he
reported the existence of sunspots. Tufte used these books to show good and not-
so-successful examples of presenting graphical information. A touch of humor lay
in the fact that the last page of the Euclid bore a large portrait of the
printer himself: nothing, said Tufte, works for quality control like putting
pictures of those who worked on it in the book. (I await an opportunity to put
my picture in a technical document.)
Tufte also showed us a nineteenth-century graphic of Napoleon's march
through Russia, and a graphic that Tufte designed giving bus schedules for New
Jersey. Both graphics, as well as both of his books, come with the class. His
paradigm of a good graphic is that it has to simultaneously give both the big
picture and the details. An example of that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in
Washington, D.C., which is a long wall on which tens of thousands of names are
engraved. The wall gives the big picture--thousands of soldiers died in the war-
-as well as the details--the individuals' names, for those who seek them.
Tufte spent a good deal of time discussing the data on O-rings that was
reviewed by Morton Thiokol's engineers a few days before the Challenger
disaster. (For the young folks reading this, Challenger was a space shuttle that
exploded a minute after takeoff in January 1986, killing all of the astronauts.
The explosion was later traced to failure of an O-ring seal in a fuel tank.)
Tufte made a compelling case that if the engineering data on the O-rings had
been displayed differently, so as to make clear the relation between ambient air
temperature and ring failure, the Morton Thiokol engineers would not have
given the go-ahead for the shuttle launch. That is, the Challenger was launched
when the ambient temperature was low, and buried in the data was the clear fact
that the O-rings tended to fail in cool temperatures.
The last hour or so was spent looking at videos, mainly at a rework that
Tufte did of a video simulation of a storm. His rework clarified various
parameters of the storm. He also showed graphical animation of several classical
music pieces for keyboard, which was unexpectedly beautiful.
All in all, Tufte was inspiring. The cost was $280, which my employer paid,
and I'm glad I went.

Jay Cherniak
Applied Physics Laboratory

chernjc1 -at- jhuapl -dot- edu


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