Last year I took a stab at illustrating an elephant’s foot. It wasn’t any old elephant’s foot, it was the object of John Hutchinson’s study on biomechanics, something which is fantastically interesting not just for its implications for illustrating other gigantic land animals but also in exploring the role of the artist in illustrating scientific research and in the role of the illustration itself. Over the course of the year, ideas I’d been developing congealed in this unfinished work. It was, so to speak, one small step for an elephant but one huge step for me as a novice in this field.
The research – which can be accessed here - is well illustrated, assuming the goal is to discuss comparative anatomy (the evolutionary development of the features) or morphology. The question I picked out of a blog post from Johns’ freezer, though, was the unique biomechanic model that elephants represent… they walk digitigrade (on their toes), but not quite. Due to a spongy foot pad, they could be argued to walk plantigrade (on the flats of their feet). I can only describe it as walking on silicone-cushioned high-heels. That’s cool. How do you illustrate that?
I contacted John to ask for materials to take a stab at it and came up with the above animation. Its a w.i.p and not fully successful but it does get the concept across. Weight loading is represented by a red arrow, extreme positions are ghosted in as the foot approaches the alternative extreme, and there’s a big silicon cushion which is possibly completely wrong. I created a linear morph between the relaxed and loaded states using John’s 3D scans and added an outline of the foot to place the bones in context. Visually, these things are all important to focus on the question I’d singled out.
What I find interesting in this exploration is 1) the potential for media artists to collaborate with scientists beyond lush life reconstructions of the latest, greatest dinosaur and 2) existing technical possibilities and their potential to make complex scientific questions accessible.
Artists have an ingrained compass for eye-catching, cutting-edge imagery. It helps get your name out, acquire jobs and feel good about yourself. I want to do some myself, and will – I promise. But wait – I already am. The human perception system is triggered to spot movement, and I’m an animator – both in the sense that I animate and that I make films with a story. For me, that squishy elephant slipper is eye-catching, cutting edge coolness.
Not all artists will be drawn to such work, and not all will have the familiarity with digital toolsets to be able to do so. But there are lots that have the potential and talent to do so. Wouldn’t it be great to see fan-art explanations being meta-tagged to research papers?
The crux of all this is that we are on the verge of large changes in the application of media on the functioning and sharing of science. What will OpenSource mean to artists? We can read the papers, contact the scientists, collaborate with journalists. What will animation technologies from games and film mean to science? Scientists are using digital imaging techniques that create incredible imagery practically as a by-product of their research. How can this wealth of material be employed in communication?
people want to learn
They big take-home message from the Senckenberg convention last June, proffered by museum director Dr. Mosbrugger, is that people want to learn. There’s an authentic interest in the world around us. If it’s accessible, people will listen, explore, even participate. And visual communication – illustrations, videos, etc – makes content more accessible, as can be ascertained by click rate comparisons of articles with and without an embedded image.
The logical consequence is that science communication is being complemented by a new possibility. Next to classical outreach – where the science-endowed prepares materials specifically for a non-scientifically endowed audience – there is a new option: inreach. This is where scientists do what they do – science. And the preparation of their communication materials is made accessible to a scientifically interested audience, who at as multipliers for an even larger group. Imagery plays a crucial role, but I’m not thinking of the simple jpg. I’m thinking of an integrated publishing system that allows quicker access to terminology via hyperlinks and interactive manipulation of the scientific content.
Imagine John’s foot (okay, not his but the elephant Betsy) being interactive. The reader can scrub the amount of pressure, controlling the amount of squish. The document could recognize that I’m reading the text passage about the prepollex and the illustration would rotate to offer a good view of this highlighted bone. Aha – that’s the prepollex. Aha, that’s a sagittal view. Hey, this paper isn’t that hard to follow after all. The summary could be an choreographed animation with additional imagery and videos accompanied by the voice of the scientist or a press agent. A youtube-ripe presentation, ready for hyperlinking.
Expensive, you say? I would argue that it’s not only inevitable, but likely cheaper in the long run, once the options for re-use through a chain of media outlets and museum presentations (both in-house and in the internet) are worked out. It’s inevitable, because the kids visiting the museum will already be up-to-date on the latest science blogs. They’ll know that Deinonychus is feathered or wrong, and they’ll demand that their museum keeps up with the pace, lest these bastions of scientific authority go the way of the television documentary, being buried in dust instead of sensationalism.
I’ll be adding more in the future, including cases where I see this shift to inreach successfully happening and my frustration with existing technical possibilities such as Unity3D in specifically addressing a publishing-embedded interactive 3D. Hopefully, I’ll get your thoughts as well…