Martin Krzywinski / Genome Sciences Center / Martin Krzywinski / Genome Sciences Center / - contact me Martin Krzywinski / Genome Sciences Center / on Twitter Martin Krzywinski / Genome Sciences Center / - Lumondo Photography Martin Krzywinski / Genome Sciences Center / - Pi Art Martin Krzywinski / Genome Sciences Center / - Hilbertonians - Creatures on the Hilbert Curve
Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ashLeonard Cohenburn somethingmore quotes

science: beautiful

EMBO Practical Course: Bioinformatics and Genome Analysis, 5–17 June 2017.

fun + amusement

The Ptolemaic Clock — A Proposal

the standard clock

Consider the lowly wall clock. It's practical and generally tells the correct time. It's the same clock everywhere and after a while it gets boring pretty quickly—maybe now?

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
In a standard clock, the bezel is fixed and the hands rotate.

In the regular clock the face bezels stay in place and the hands move. Why am I telling you this? Well, maybe you see where I'm going.

the Ptolemaic Clock

Who says it's the hands that have to rotate? Instead of rotating hands and a stationary bezel, consider the clock with stationary hands rotating bezels.

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
In the Ptolemaic clock, the hands stay in place while independent minute and hour hand bezels rotate to simulate the movement of the hands.

In the Ptolemaic clock there are two independent bezels and two independent hands. The bezels rotate counterclockwise to simulate the standard clockwise motion of the hands. The hands are not moving but in the frame of reference of the bezels, it's the hands that are rotating. The position of the bezel is always related to the current time and the position of its corresponding hand.

The bezel can move clockwise.

Thanks to Rodrigo Goya for suggesting the name for this kind of clock—Ptolemaic Clock, named so after the geocentric Ptolemaic model of the solar system.

telling time on the Ptolemaic clock

To tell the time on the Ptolemaic clock is a process identical to using the standard clock. You look at the bezel numbers at the ends of the hour and minute hands.

On the fixed bezel layout, most people will take a short cut and tell the time by the position of the hands. This works as long as you have a standard clock. On a Ptolemaic clock the position of the hands tells you nothing.

Here is a Ptolemaic clock telling us it is 6:30. It uses the same position of hands as in the figures above.

You know this because the blue hour hand points to midway between 6 and 7 on the inner hour bezel and the grey minute hand points to 30 on the outer minute bezel.

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
It is 6:30 on this Ptolemaic clock.

After 15 minutes, it's 6:45 and our Ptolemaic clock bezels have moved a little bit.

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
It is 6:45 on this Ptolemaic clock.

Can you tell what time it is on the Ptolemaic clock below?

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
If you answered 8:50, you are correct. It is 8:50.

customizing the Ptolemaic clock

Customizing your Ptolemaic clock is easy. Simply adjust the hands to desired positions and set the time by moving the bezels. The clock below shows the same time as the clock in the above figure — both show 8:50.

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
This clock tells us it's 8:50. Compare this to the clock in the figure above, which also tells the same time.

ptolemaic clock — hard layout

In the clock design shown here, the hands are the same size and only differ by color. To make things less confusing, emphasize the hour hand.

To make things more confusing, remove all color and number cues, keeping only a single symbol on each of the bezels to indicate 12 o'clock and 0 minutes. This is shown in the clock below.

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
In the hard layout of a Ptolemaic clock, there are fewer cues. I think it's 8:50.

news room parodies

Spice it up with multiple Ptolemaic clocks side-by-side telling the same time with different hand positions.

Suppose it is 2:30 in Vancouver—this is my location. The clocks below all show 2:30, but with hands set to 5:30, 11:30 and 7:30.

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Looks like a wall of clocks in a newsroom. Except these Ptolemaic clocks tell us that it's 2:30, three times over in Vancouver.

These hand positions are those that would appear on a standard clock showing the times in New York (5:30), Paris (11:30) and Tokyo (7:30).

Let's now use the Ptolemaic clock to show times at these three locations but with the hand set to the curiously satisfying layout of 10ish minutes to 2.

Non-standard clock with rotating bezel. / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
A challenging panel of Ptolemaic clocks.


Set both hand positions to 12 o'clock and then remove the hands; to tell time, read the numbers on the hour and minute bezels at the apex of the clock.


Sophisticated implementations of the Ptolemaic clock could periodically randomize hand positions to keep things interesting; by the time you've figured out the time in the morning, you're wide awake.

Every minute the clock randomly resets its hand positions. The movement is smooth and the bezels follow.

hardware implementation

If you would like to implement the Ptolemaic clock, I would be happy to hear from you. One should be able to take a regular wall clock, reverse the direction of the hand mechanism and rig a freely moving bezel to each of the minute and hour mechanism. The hands should not move and can be fixed to the front glass plate, for example.


It should now be clear that the Ptolemaic clock is superior to the standard clock. The reasons are

  • it's much harder to tell time on the Ptolemaic clock, which makes your brain do more work
  • it tips its hat off to a simpler time when we didn't know anything and hints at the possibility of regression anytime
    • it will confuse everyone
    • you have a great excuse for being late
    • return to geocentric values!
  • you can customize your own Ptolemaic clock by moving the hands to arbitrary locations
    • two Ptolemaic clocks can have their hands and bezels at different positions but still be telling the same time
    • two Ptolemaic clocks can have their hands at the same position but be telling different times

news + thoughts

Happy 2017 `\pi` Day—Star Charts, Creatures Once Living and a Poem

Tue 14-03-2017

on a brim of echo,

capsized chamber
drawn into our constellation, and cooling.
—Paolo Marcazzan

Celebrate `\pi` Day (March 14th) with star chart of the digits. The charts draw 40,000 stars generated from the first 12 million digits.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
12,000,000 digits of `\pi` interpreted as a star catalogue. (details)

The 80 constellations are extinct animals and plants. Here you'll find old friends and new stories. Read about how Desmodus is always trying to escape or how Megalodon terrorizes the poor Tecopa! Most constellations have a story.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Find friends and stories among the 80 constellations of extinct animals and plants. Oh look, a Dodo guardings his eggs! (details)

This year I collaborate with Paolo Marcazzan, a Canadian poet, who contributes a poem, Of Black Body, about space and things we might find and lose there.

Check out art from previous years: 2013 `\pi` Day and 2014 `\pi` Day, 2015 `\pi` Day and and 2016 `\pi` Day.

Data in New Dimensions: convergence of art, genomics and bioinformatics

Tue 07-03-2017

Art is science in love.
— E.F. Weisslitz

A behind-the-scenes look at the making of our stereoscopic images which were at display at the AGBT 2017 Conference in February. The art is a creative collaboration with Becton Dickinson and The Linus Group.

Its creation began with the concept of differences and my writeup of the creative and design process focuses on storytelling and how concept of differences is incorporated into the art.

Oh, and this might be a good time to pick up some red-blue 3D glasses.

BD Genomics 3D art exhibit - AGBT 2017 / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
A stereoscopic image and its interpretive panel of single-cell transcriptomes of blood cells: diseased versus healthy control.

Interpreting P values

Thu 02-03-2017
A P value measures a sample’s compatibility with a hypothesis, not the truth of the hypothesis.

This month we continue our discussion about `P` values and focus on the fact that `P` value is a probability statement about the observed sample in the context of a hypothesis, not about the hypothesis being tested.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Interpreting P values. (read)

Given that we are always interested in making inferences about hypotheses, we discuss how `P` values can be used to do this by way of the Benjamin-Berger bound, `\bar{B}` on the Bayes factor, `B`.

Heuristics such as these are valuable in helping to interpret `P` values, though we stress that `P` values vary from sample to sample and hence many sources of evidence need to be examined before drawing scientific conclusions.

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2017) Points of Significance: Interpreting P values. Nature Methods 14:213–214.

Background reading

Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2017) Points of significance: P values and the search for significance. Nature Methods 14:3–4.

Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2013) Points of significance: Significance, P values and t–tests. Nature Methods 10:1041–1042.

...more about the Points of Significance column

Snellen Charts—Typography to Really Look at

Sat 18-02-2017

Another collection of typographical posters. These ones really ask you to look.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Snellen charts designed using physical constants, Braille and elemental abundances in the universe and human body.

The charts show a variety of interesting symbols and operators found in science and math. The design is in the style of a Snellen chart and typset with the Rockwell font.

Essentials of Data Visualization—8-part video series

Fri 17-02-2017
Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski

In collaboration with the Phil Poronnik and Kim Bell-Anderson at the University of Sydney, I'm delighted to share with you our 8-part video series project about thinking about drawing data and communicating science.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Essentials of Data Visualization: Thinking about drawing data and communicating science.

We've created 8 videos, each focusing on a different essential idea in data visualization: encoding, shapes, color, uncertainty, design, drawing missing or unobserved data, labels and process.

The videos were designed as teaching materials. Each video comes with a slide deck and exercises.

me as a keyword list

aikido | analogies | animals | astronomy | comfortable silence | cosmology | dorothy parker | drumming | espresso | fundamental forces | good kerning | graphic design | humanism | humour | jean michel jarre | kayaking | latin | little fluffy clouds | lord of the rings | mathematics | negative space | nuance | perceptual color palettes | philosophy of science | photography | physical constants | physics | poetry | pon farr | reason | rhythm | richard feynman | science | secularism | swing | symmetry and its breaking | technology | things that make me go hmmm | typography | unix | victoria arduino | wine | words