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COMIC LEGEND: Al Hirschfeld’s hidden mentions of his daughter in his drawings were used by the military to train pilots
STATUS: Basically True
The legendary cartoonist and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld is likely most famous for the caricatures that he supplied for many, many years for the New York Times’ drama section. His caricatures and drawings appeared many other places, as well, of course, in his long and illustrious career (he worked well into his 90s and passed away in 2003 at the age of 99). One of the most famous aspects of Hirschfeld’s drawings, though, was the way that he worked the name of his daughter, Nina, into his drawings.
Here are three Hirschfeld drawings – see if you can find the Ninas hidden in them…
The public’s fascination with his Ninas has led to many interesting usages, perhaps most interesting is what the concept tells us about camouflage. Hirschfeld spoke a number of times over the years about how the United States military would use his work to help train pilots in their ability to bomb targets, as they would challenge them to quickly identify the Nina in a drawing. Hirschfeld wrote:
Knowledge of Nina apparently reached the Pentagon in Washington. . . . The Pentagon awarded a $60,000 grant to a professor at the University of Pennsylvania to research the Ninas in my drawings.
“Enlargements of the drawings were to be shown on a movie screen in the Pentagon, and the student pilots would be required to ferret out the Ninas in my projected drawings. Grading would be based on the speed with which the pilots located the Nina targets!
Hirschfeld is BASICALLY correct. There HAD been tests like that over the years. However, Hirschfeld was confusing those with the work of Calvin Nodine, which went a good deal beyond just “see if you can find the Nina” as a test of pilot targeting skills. You see, Nodine (then a Temple University professor and then later a University of Pennsylvania professor) received a grant from the United States Pentagon to study the very nature of camouflage. The study would test people’s eye movements as they searched for the Nina in a Hirschfeld drawing. For military purposes, this would therefore test to see how people search for hidden items, which would be used to better camouflage things in the field.
However, while that was the military purpose, Nodine later adapted the concept to greater use with his colleague Harold Kundel, to the field of radiology, specifically the examination of scans for tumors. There are specific sorts of tumors that were difficult for radiologists to pick up, because they were in effect being camouflaged by nodules and the like. Studying how Hirschfeld hid his Ninas in the workings of his drawings showed that the human eye is prone to being tricked by certain things.
As Nodine himself noted:
[W]e found that by monitoring search behavior of radiologists, we could use the length of eye-fixation pauses to identify the locations of possible missed lung tumors that are typically camouflaged by overlying anatomic structures in chest X-ray images. When we then played back the locations of prolonged pauses by highlighting them, we found many missed tumors.
[I]f we can develop a feasible, computer-assisted visual search system, we may be able significantly to reduce error in both lung and breast screening for cancer.
How cool is that?