The best scientific illustrations in history

A book compiles the most brilliant scientific prints, from the fifteenth century to the present.

14th century anatomical art by Leonardo Da Vinci. Photo: Shutterstock.

Scientific illustration has been applied as an art that serves not only to understand, but also to record, study and catalog the different parts of the human body, multiple diseases and even the sequencing of the human genome. This tool offered by the discipline of visual communication continues to be one of the most effective methods for capturing what scientists and researchers want to reflect.

It is worth mentioning that when viewing a scientific illustration it can be seen that it is not related to the illustrations of an artistic nature, since the illustrator scientific exercises the elegant art of showing what the scientific tell you, without leaving your own mark as author. This model of scientific illustration is to be admired, because it is inherent in the nature of its model and provides great value scientific.

A great example is that of the Young Hare that Alberto Dürer made in 1502, without any aesthetic element that distracts attention from the information to be displayed. It is necessary to highlight that the science It is not only illustrated with drawings, but also represented with statistical graphs, infographics, tables and diagrams, which need to be processed by the joint work of illustrators, scientists, graphic designers, scientists and science communicators.

The periodic table of elements is for most of the scientific community the most perfect illustration of history, it is a table that facilitates the study, information and classification of chemical elements, and it is so exceptional that Dmitri Mendeleev himself he left the spaces empty for the elements that had not yet been discovered in his time.

On the other hand, throughout the history of scienceit is important to highlight the work of other profiles, such as that of printers and publishers when reproducing texts with illustrations increasingly complex scientific One of them is the printer Erhard Ratdolt (considered the first publisher scientific of history) who, aware of the importance of representing and synthesizing mathematical examples through graphism, in 1482 produced Euclid’s Elements for the first time in Latin, dealing with the great compositional difficulties of geometric diagrams.

There is also the editor Johannes Oporinus who knew how to apply the woodcuts that had to be created to edit Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543. Vesalius’s work was the first modern anatomy, based on models of human corpses; the first complete study of the organs of the human body and their structure, which allowed refuting dozens of Galen’s anatomical theories.

It should be added that it is also important to recognize the illustrations that Robert Hooke made in his work Micrographia published in 1665, the first best-seller of scientific popularization and that has the name of “cell”, when citing how Hooke observed with an optical microscope the pores of a cork sheet that reminded him of the small monastic cells of the monasteries. Today, his illustrations of tiny bodies continue to amaze and provide useful data to the scientific community.

On the other hand, they are also valuable illustrations from Marie Curie’s laboratory notebooks, some very simple graphs that accompany the historical annotations of the first steps of nuclear physics. It is worth mentioning that Marie Curie’s notebooks are still radioactive, and in order to be able to consult them, the French National Library obliges the researcher to sign a consent as he knows that these documents are radioactive and that the BNF is not responsible for the consequences that may affect to the researcher; and proceed to the consultation with a special suit.

Similarly, those of Alexander Fleming’s notebooks with the annotations of the first records that helped discover the medical use of penicillin, one of the most important milestones of the 20th century, are also interesting. Without a doubt, they are also those carried out by Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Camillo Golgi, in the investigations that led them to obtain the Nobel Prize for Medicinefor his contribution to the doctrine of the neuron, which would demonstrate that the nervous system is not a simple connected tissue, but is structured by discrete cells, with extensions called axons and dendrites.

Following the branch of human anatomy, there are the great scientific illustrators of the medical discipline, such as Jan Stefan van Calcar, from Titian’s studio, who made the illustrations from De humani corporis fabrica by Vesalius; Nicolas Henri Jacob who made the incredible illustrations from the anatomical atlas of Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery in the 19th century, or already in the 20th century to Dr. Frank H. Netter, an illustrator recognized for his work for pharmaceuticals and medical publishers. He is also the author of the illustrations of the anatomical atlases most consulted by students of medicine since the 70’s.

Another scientific illustration is George Lemaître’s graph that represents the time evolution of the radius of the universe with the cosmological constant, for a space of positive curvature. one of the first illustrations of his studies on the primitive atom (popularized as the Big Bang theory) dedicated to the origin of the universe from the point of view of quantum physics. In this curve we can see that all the models start from a singularity (x = 0, t = 0) and how for a sufficiently large cosmological constant the universe expands.

Last but not least, there are the illustrations by Maria Sivylla Merian, a pioneer of entomology, who refuted that insects did not arise spontaneously from putrefying mud. Sivylla made a series of rigorous field notebooks, providing annotations and scrupulous illustrations that led her to masterfully document the metamorphosis of butterflies. And also the illustrations of the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, who was a pioneer of ornithology in America, and who dedicated much of his career to making an inventory of North American bird species.

The Scientific Illustration book is conceived as a celebration of the science, which visualizes the importance that it must be understandable and accessible to the general public, and that scientific illustration also plays a major role in this equation; precisely shows a visual journey through the history of science through the illustrations of scientific milestones as an example that is a vital element for its understanding.

Source consulted here.

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