Before the camera, scientists depended on drawings to replicate the natural world, its flora and fauna, on the printed page. But even today, well after the arrival of photography and other sophisticated imaging techniques, old-school illustration persists as the method of choice in books, articles, and professional research papers. So how has this craft survived alongside photos and high-tech scans?
First, there are some instances—such as portraying an extinct animal no human has ever seen—that simply demand creative rendering. But even with extant species, scientists say that, with the possible exception of presenting small areas of minute surface detail, there is simply no substitute for putting pen to paper. Even 3-D scanned images can lack the resolution needed to represent complex structures, color gradations, and other essential details.
It is not a matter of resisting technology. Many scientific illustrators use computer software to execute their drawings or to tweak pen or pencil images after they have been digitized. And most consider computed tomography, scanning electron microscopy, and other high-resolution imaging techniques important tools, enhancements of the eye that allow for ever more detail in the finished drawing. (Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies, an exhibition showcasing examples of such imaging and its use in Museum research, will be on view in the Akeley Gallery starting Saturday, June 25.)
Blogging from west Kenya, William Harcourt-Smith, a research associate in the Division of Paleontology, is directing a 20-million-year-old paleontological site on two islands in Lake Victoria. One of these islands, Rusinga, is best known as the site of the discovery of the first fossils of Proconsul, an early ape. Harcourt-Smith’s multidisciplinary team includes physical anthropologists and geologists, and in addition to collecting fossils, researchers are trying to learn more about the evolutionary events and environmental conditions that may have influenced the emergence of Proconsul and other early ape lineages.
Whether Museum scientists are studying parasites, people, or planets in other solar systems, cutting-edge imaging technologies such as infrared photography, scanning electron microscopes, and CT scanners now make it possible to examine details that were previously unobservable. A new exhibition, Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies, features more than 20 sets of large-format images that showcase the wide range of research being conducted at the Museum as well as how various optical tools are used in scientific studies.
On Thursday, July 7, the Museum’s Tumblr and Twitter followers are invited to a special after-hours viewing of the exhibition, including visits to cutting-edge research labs, the opportunity to meet Museum scientists, and more. Visit the application page to find out more about the event and sign up for your chance to attend.
The Museum’s new blog on Tumblr, which showcases a wide range of photos taken by staff photographers, was recently added to Tumblr’s Spotlight, a directory of inspiring blogs, in the Science category.
Daily photos provide an insider’s look at work that goes on behind the scenes at the Museum (like cleaning T. rex’s teeth), interesting specimens from the Museum’s collection, and beautiful shots of the Museum’s iconic halls.