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science: beautiful

Scientific graphical abstracts — design guidelines

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

Standardization fallacy

Tue 09-02-2021

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty! —D. Adams

A popular notion about experiments is that it's good to keep variability in subjects low to limit the influence of confounding factors. This is called standardization.

Unfortunately, although standardization increases power, it can induce unrealistically low variability and lead to results that do not generalize to the population of interest. And, in fact, may be irreproducible.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Standardization fallacy. (read)

Not paying attention to these details and thinking (or hoping) that standardization is always good is the "standardization fallacy". In this column, we look at how standardization can be balanced with heterogenization to avoid this thorny issue.

Voelkl, B., Würbel, H., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2021) Points of significance: Standardization fallacy. Nature Methods 18:5–6.

Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines

Fri 13-11-2020

Clear, concise, legible and compelling.

Making a scientific graphical abstract? Refer to my practical design guidelines and redesign examples to improve organization, design and clarity of your graphical abstracts.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines — Clear, concise, legible and compelling.

"This data might give you a migrane"

Tue 06-10-2020

An in-depth look at my process of reacting to a bad figure — how I design a poster and tell data stories.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
A poster of high BMI and obesity prevalence for 185 countries.

He said, he said — a word analysis of the 2020 Presidential Debates

Thu 01-10-2020

Building on the method I used to analyze the 2008, 2012 and 2016 U.S. Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, I explore word usagein the 2020 Debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Analysis of word usage by parts of speech for Trump and Biden reveals insight into each candidate.

Points of Significance celebrates 50th column

Mon 24-08-2020

We are celebrating the publication of our 50th column!

To all our coauthors — thank you and see you in the next column!

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance: Celebrating 50 columns of clear explanations of statistics. (read)

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