How Drawing Helps a Scientist

Chernoff Faces, named after the statistician who devised them, use variation in the size of facial features like eyebrow angle, eye size, and facial shape to represent multidimensional data. It’s extremely difficult to discern trends in more than two or three variables at once, but, we easily recognize which faces, and therefore data sets, are similar to one another, since humans are so good at recognizing images of faces. But this isn’t the only way scientists use imagery: in the labs I teach, every class includes drawing, to sharpen the observational powers, a traditional part of scientific training.

My interest in science and drawing are intimately connected. I grew to love organisms, especially sharks, by drawing them from library books. I still draw when I have a few free moments, and I also draw in museums to heighten the experience.  An art teacher of mine had us go to a museum and sketch some of the artwork, explaining that making sketches of past masters’ work longstanding tradition for art students. I have adopted this tradition for aquariums as well as art museums.

I use drawings in my work as well. The other day I was looking at a map of my study region and I couldn’t tell if I was looking at the San Joaquin or Kings River watershed, but by sketching the reservoir and comparing it to an online map I finally figured which one it was (and that Millerton Lake looks just like a Doctor Seuss fish). Likewise, if I find a partial organism in my diet samples, I can determine its identity by drawing part of it and noting the salient features.

This isn’t the only way imagery helps me. Whenever I come across the name of a new type of fish in a paper, thanks to image searches on web search engines I can find out what it looks like almost instantly. I don’t need to know what they look like, but I use this activity as a reward, a carrot to keep me going. People hang fish prints in their houses, and some science manuals use fish prints as illustrations – the beauty and the utility of the art is inseparable. Indeed, the power of artistry is so strong that bird identification books often contain paintings, rather than photographs, because it is easier to depict the bird’s coloration with paint than photography.