A picture may be worth a thousand words, but only because humans are acutely visual animals. Large portions of our brains are devoted to making sense of the information we pick up with our eyes, processing changes in light and shadow, movement, and finding faces in everything we look at. (For more on that, here’s an interesting video from the MIT Museum -- Nancy Kanwisher talking about her research on human visual processing.) Visuals become particularly important in the sciences, where a well-drawn figure can be the difference between clarity and a confusing morass of conflicting data.
Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery and Howtoons: The Possibilities are Endless! are two books that are all about the figures.
In Amazing Rare Things, filmmaker David Attenborough compiles a historical overview of natural history illustration, highlighting one collector: Cassiano del Pozzo, and four artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander Marshall, Maria Merian, and Mark Catesby. Each chapter contains a short critical essay by an expert on watercolors and prints, but the real focus is on the art. There was no photography during the Age of Exploration, and the drawings that artists made during their travels (or from the specimens others sent back) were the only way to record what newly discovered plants and animals looked like. The book lets you soak up the pictures, featuring double-page spreads of alligators, insects, birds, and flowers, showing off the drawings that were most people’s first contact with distant parts of the world.
Howtoons also uses visuals to instruct, but the focus is on getting kids to get off their butts and make things. The books contains a series of instructions -- written by Saul Griffith and Joost Bonsen, and illustrated by DC comics artist Nick Dragotta – that show readers how to accomplish a variety of fun projects, such as hanging a swing, counting in binary, or building a soda-bottle rocket. The action centers around a friendly rivalry between Tucker and Celine, a brother and sister with a basement workshop and time on their hands. But that’s really just window-dressing for the project instructions, which are drawn so clearly that even I could build a PVC-pipe marshmallow shooter.
And maybe I will.