The Art of Scientific Illustration

21 Apr

 One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words – Confucius.

Create, as if your life depends upon it – Jessie Shaw

There is hardly a more familiar artifact of modern life than the so-called scientific illustrations. That is, the diagram or picture in isometric or linear perspective with notations for scale and measurement which show how machines or houses or even human beings are put together and taken apart and how they work. Who, indeed, has never depended on such an illustration for assembling a Christmas bicycle or a Sears & Roebuch porch swing (not to mention for constructing an atomic reactor or preparing for open heart surgery)? So taken for granted is the ubiquitous scientific illustration that few scholars have ever sensed that it has any historical interest. – Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr. [1]

Leonardo's drawing of an ornithopter. He was inspired by the observation of birds flying, and this drawing is considered the first scientific illustration. Image credit: NASA/Photo Researchers, Inc.

The art of scientific drawing is an irreplaceable method for better apprehension of ideas, and a way to prepare the ground for new discoveries. All along the history of science, we know of great genius that relied on drawing to discover or better express his/her ideas.

The first men of science illustrating their writings were Leonardo da Vinci (see the ornithopter), Francis Bacon, Galileo, William Harvey, Descartes.

Leonardo was very eager to keep his secrets, not wanting they fall into the wrong hands. For this motive, he had a preferred left-hand writing in his notebooks (called ‘mirror writing’), while employing his hand-writing in conventional communication (in his letters). Movement specialist Grant Ramey [2] sustains that Da Vinci use ‘mirror writing’ because he was passionate by symmetry and the human form in art and science. Apparently, Da Vinci wrote in his notebooks from right to left, with his left-hand, in order to keep thinking (instead to remain focused on his own writing), see here.

Scientific illustration is an important form of art, intending at the same time accurately transmit scientific knowledge. Interestingly, Goethe is quoted to have said that you really do not see a plant until you actually draw it…

Why we should start to draw figures in our intellectual and aesthetic activities? In order to understand the power of drawing, let us start to quote here another great man, Thomas H. Huxley, since it is with them that we learn: «[…] I should, in the first place, secure that training of the young in reading and writing, and in the habit of attention and observation, both to that which is told them, and that which they see, which everybody agrees to. But in addition to that, I should make it absolutely necessary for everybody, for a longer or shorter period, to learn to draw.»

In Meno, famous dialogue between Socrates and one of Meno’s slave (a boy), see Ref.[3] to read the complete dialogue, it is clear that by drawing and with the right questions, we may “recall” the knowledge we have in our minds. This famous dialogue depicts the problem of teaching science, in fact a very old topic in philosophy of science, the problem of the “tacit knowledge” that we all may eventually possess.

We quote next to a short part of this important dialogue, led by Socrates, while drawing on the ground.

«Meno: Yes, Socrates. But what do you mean by this, that we do not learn and what is called learning is recollection? Can you teach me that this is so? […]

Meno: Certainly. Step forward here.

Socrates: Now, is he Greek and speaks Greek?

Meno: Absolutely. He was born in the house.

Socrates: Then pay close attention to see whether he seems to recollect or to be learning from me.

M: I certainly will.

So: Tell me, boy, do you know that a square is like this? [Socrates draw a square on the ground, see 1]

Slave: I do.

So: And so a square has these lines, four of them, all equal? [see 2]

Slave: Of course.

So: And these ones going through the center are also equal? [see 3]

Slave: Yes.

So: And so there would be larger and smaller versions of this area? [see 4]

Slave: Certainly.

So: Now, if this side were two feet and this side two feet also, how many feet would the whole be? Look at it like this: if this one were two feet

but this one only one foot, wouldn’t the area have to be two feet taken once? [see 5]

Slave: Yes.

So: When this one is also two feet, there would be twice two?

Slave: There would.

So: An area of twice two feet?

Slave: Yes.

So: How much is twice two feet? Calculate and tell me. [see 6]

Slave: Four, Socrates. [see 7]

So: Couldn’t there be one different from this, doubled, but of the same kind, with all the lines equal, as in that one? [see 8]

Slave: Yes.

So: And how many feet in area?

Slave: Eight.

So: Now could one draw another figure double the size of this, but similar, that is with all its sides equal like this one? [see 9]

Slave: Yes.

So: How many feet will its area be?

Slave: Eight.

So: Now then, try to tell me how long each of its sides will be. The present figure has a side of two feet. What will be the side

of the double-sized one?

Slave: It will be double, Socrates, obviously.

So: You see, Meno, that I am not teaching him anything, only asking. Now he thinks he knows the length of the side of the

eight-feet square.

MENO: Yes.

So: But does he?

Meno: Certainly not.

So: He thinks it is twice the length of the other.

MENO: Yes.

So: Now watch how he recollects things in order — the proper way to recollect.

Archimedes was also known to write in whatever surfaces he had at hand, on the sawdust-covered floors, on the sand, drawing geometric shapes on the extinguished fires. That ‘s why the majority of Archimedes drawings are forever lost. He spent hours, sited on the floor, like most geometers at his time did, since it was too expensive to scribbled on a papyrus and then thrown it away.

Galileo Galilei with the help of his telescope (invented by him) also made the first drawing of the moon. The consequences were controversial, since the Catholic Church saw in his drawings, his sketches of the moon, irregular surface, full of craters, a proof that the heavenly bodies were not perfect, as supposed before. But the dialectical fight between science and religion was just beginning {5}. the old war between the Catholic Church and science, made the popes suspicious of the scientific findings and induce them to create the Vatican Observatory with headquarters at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, outside Rome. Quite surprisingly, they also have a research center, the Vatican Observatory Research Group, hosted by Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Tucson, USA. Located at the Mount Graham International observatory, in southeastern Arizona, the Vatican possess the 1.8m Alice P. Lennon Telescope with its Thomas J. Bannan Astrophysics Facility, known together as the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. Vatican astronomers said recently that it is okay that people believe in ET’s [5].

Hiero II calling Archimedes to fortify Syracuse. Archimedes was considered at the time a great mind in matters of military strategy. Painting by Sebastiano Ricci. Image credit:

Galileo first drawing of the Moon.

Remark that by drawing you may understand the Pythagoras theorem (see also here).

We must not lose sight that analytical equations represent spatial structures. Our mind must deal with this “hidden” aspect of the mathematical formalism. This is most important for people working in visual science, like computers programming {2}.

Researches done by Professor Shaaron Ainsworth of the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology, and colleagues from La Trobe and Deakin Universities in Australia, have shown that students learn better when they are endowed to draw, a method which helps students in visualizing abstract concepts, to recall and to more easily engage in communicating with each other. Teachers at school should endeavour to teach and encourage students to draw what they have learned, since this is a powerful method to apprehend any subject, and a powerful process when aiming to transmit ideas to other people {4}. According to Horst Bredekamp [6], it was the ability to draw shown by Galileo that allowed him to better understand Nature; due to their artistic abilities, he could see better than others not gifted in the arts of illustration.


[1] Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., in “The Renaissance Development of the Scientific Illustration”

[2] Science and Education, Thomas H. Huxley

[3] Meno, by Platon

[4] Scientific Illustrations, by John L. Ridgway

[5] Vatican Astronomers says its okay to believe in ET, by Nancy Atkinson

[6] Galileo in Context, (p. 180) Edited by Jürgen Renn


{1} The Craft of Scientific Illustrations [contains important advice on how to draw a scientific illustration] []

{2} The importance of drawing

{3} Drawing pictures key to learn science

{4} Drawing and doodling can help you learn science

{5} Catholic Church and Science


One Response to “The Art of Scientific Illustration”

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