Wednesday, June 24, 2015

scientists, artists and drawing

In Scientific American, the need for scientists to be able to draw is discussed.
I have always found it easy to make the case that all artists are scientists. ...
Yet, it seems a longer stretch, somehow, to argue that all scientists are artists. At the very least, in my experience, scientists seem less willing to claim this alternate title. In fact, almost anyone who does not see her or himself as artistically inclined tends to be a little too quick to proclaim, “Oh, I’m not an artist. I can’t even draw a straight line!” With a sigh, I’ll avoid the temptation to digress into the utter irrelevance of straight lines and one’s ability to draw them. Instead, I’d like to posit the idea that, while we may not all identify as artists, scientists, of all people, really should be artists.
Slightly off-topic, I love the remark about drawing straight lines.  These days I am listening to Surviving Creativity, a podcast by web comics artists who also find this remark common and frustrating.  They would say, "use a ruler."

One of the toughest things for me to learn about science was the need to not merely see and understand a phenomenon but to describe it to others.  I was, and am, simply happy to see and enjoy the moment.  For such enjoyment, degrees are not given!

Computers basically allowed me to graduate with a science degree.  My handwriting was, and is, terrible and the ability to type and print easily meant that in 1990, I could graduate while in 1980, I would not have graduated.  For illegible scrawling, degrees are not given!

And now photography is similarly so much easier.  Do scientists need to draw now?
As biomedical imaging techniques continue to advance, those of us who specialize in the visualization of scientific information are often compelled to question the significance of our role. After all, if we can acquire fantastically thin slices of brain tissue, scan them with an electron beam, import the visual data into a computer, and use it to reconstruct a perfectly accurate three-dimensional digital model of brain cells and their connections, then why on earth would we bother with such a tedious and antiquated pursuit as drawing?
And the answer:
No matter how clearly we can see an object, there is something about the physical act of reproducing and interpreting it visually: in making marks, we infuse meaning into each element of the structure before us. Recently, I was asked to draw an animal cell in cross-section as part of an illustration series I was working on. It’s the sort of image any biologist has seen a thousand times in various renditions: a roughly spherical blob with a 90-degree wedge cut out reveals a sampling of organelles floating in cytoplasm.
While I count myself among those to whom this image is almost tediously familiar, I was shocked at how much difficulty I had in trying to draw the large organelle known as the endoplasmic reticulum (or the “ER,” to those in the know). Admittedly, it’s a complex structure composed of membranes folded into repeated convolutions. But still, I’m a fairly seasoned draftsperson with, I thought, a reasonably solid grasp of cell biology. Yet as I struggled through my pencil sketch, I realized that I had never really understood the physical structure of the ER.
In wood carving a heron, I finally understood the shape and proportions of the typical heron.  My first preparatory drawing gave the heron a horizontally framed body, similar to an ostrich while after further study, I saw that it is more diagonal.  I deeply understood similar detail about cheetahs after carving one for my son.

I've quoted a lot and don't want to paste more here, but do read the original.  As a counter argument to his point, the author looked at Ramon y Cajal and Camilo Golgi's contrasting drawings and conclusions.  The ways they emphasized what they thought was important resulted in different images.

Oh, and to the long-suffering Dr Cam Lewis, who worked so hard to teach me histology, Coral Reef ecology and Vertebrate and Invertebrate Zoology,  thank you.  I now see the value of drawing.

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