Way the heck up there

December 16, 2006

I am a ecologist who spends quite a bit of time groveling in the litter of tropical forests looking for arthropods. Its a rare occasion that I find myself in the tropical canopy, which is usually just a much appreciated source of shade, and, of course, the leaves that fall and feed the decomposer, or brown, food web.

So it was on a recent trip to Peru I had the pleasure of working with Steve Yanoviak and Robert Dudley on various projects that required climbing into canopy of the Amazon forest, about 30 m above where I usually sit. It was, as one would imagine, a helluva lot of fun. As folks rarely get the chance to get a bird’s eye view of the tropical forest, check out this panorama.

Steve Yanoviak and Robert Dudley at the ACT canopy walkway along the Rio Napo, Peru.
Dr’s Yanoviak and Dudley in the canopy of the Amazon forest.

Reading a book for the pictures

December 16, 2006

When I was growing up, it was a pretty common slam of a person’s intellectual bonafides if “He’d only read a book for the pictures.”. Yet try explaining how to tie your shoe, safely slice a bagel, or identify a downy woodpecker without a picture. Graphics guru Edward Tufte in his latest book Beautiful Evidence illustrates how Galileo’s discoveries and insights spread not just on their merits, but because these discoveries were described with panache and gorgeously illustrated.

Galileo’s illustration of the moon, from The Galileo Project.
Galileo's moon illustration from The Galileo Project--http://galileo.rice.edu

The biological sciences also enjoyed the work of scientists who worked on their artistic chops. At our History of Science collection you can page through gorgeous elephant folios dating from the 15th centure that captured for the first time, in words and pictures, the structure of an insect eye

OU History of Science Collection
detailed drawing of the eye of a housefly, from the University of Oklahoma History of Science collection

or the life cycle of a frog

OU History of Science Collection
Frog metamorphosis illustration from History of Science Collection, University of Oklahoma

Note these illustrations didn’t support the description of insect vision and amphibian metamorphosis, they were integral parts of the argument.

Why the intellectual snobbery of text-only education? One can imagine that it was a sin of necessity in the era of the printing press, where every illustration required a specially prepared plate. Until quite recently, science journals were pretty skimpy with the figures: limiting authors to black and white graphs that all had to be specially set at the printers. And woe to the poor schlub who found that the outlier in Figure 1 was in fact a random inkdrop. If the paper had already been accepted for publication it was a time for much groveling to the editor.

Well, the web has changed all that. Suddenly, in the last 2% of the timespan since Johannes Gutenberg got his fingers dirty, we have free, full color publishing allowing us to mix text and print however we like. And even the journals are getting less stingy about publishing pictures and illustrations (or at least allowing you to link to them).

So where does this leave you, the young scientist? Able to fully exploit this visual revolution, that’s what. Do you think we’ve maxed out the all the different ways to conveying scientific discoveries in clear and compelling ways? Neither do I.

Unfortunately, our K-12 curricula prepares us for the intellectual world of our parents and grandparents. And this text-centric culture apparently doesn’t believe art is that important. In Daniel Pink’s excellent Whole New Mind we hear of a fellow named Gordon MacKenzie, an artist from Hallmark cards who would visit classrooms around Kansas City. When he saw art taped to the walls, he would ask “Who’s the artist?”. If he was visiting a kindergarden, all the hands in the room would go up.

By second grade, three quarters of the hands would shoot up.

By the sixth grade, no hands.

Sound familiar? When was the last time you took out a pencil and drew something? Remember how captivating such an activity was when you were younger? Why did you give it up? So this holiday season take out your Ludwig pastels and a big sheet of paper, open your new copy of Photoshop CS3, and sharpen your Durwint HBs. Its time to build a new, more colorful, Academy.

And repeat to yourself, Quality = Design * Content.